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Benedict Rogers

Auschwitz-Birkenau is repeating itself in many parts of the world

We must act faster, and more robustly, to stop it in China’s western Xinjiang region, Myanmar, and North Korea too
Published: April 22, 2024 04:02 AM GMT

Updated: April 22, 2024 04:18 AM GMT

Demonstrators representing Tibetans and Uyghurs protest during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Week in San Francisco, California, on Nov. 15, 2023.

Demonstrators representing Tibetans and Uyghurs protest during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Week in San Francisco, California, on Nov. 15, 2023. (Photo: AFP)

The skies were appropriately gray and overcast on the day I walked through Auschwitz and Birkenau, the two most notorious concentration camps at the center of the Holocaust, in Poland a week ago.

Visiting these camps, where one and a half million people, mainly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis, is a harrowing experience that is difficult to put into words.

No amount of films one may have watched, books one may have read or pictures one may have seen of the Holocaust over 80 years ago can prepare one for the tangible stench of evil that can be felt in Auschwitz-Birkenau still today.

Upon entering Auschwitz with a guide, visitors walk through a tunnel in respectful silence while a recorded voice reads the names of those who died. Then you emerge, turn a corner, and are confronted with that infamous gate with the notorious words: “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free).

I have seen many photographs of this over the years, but to stand right in front of that gate — and enter through it — was chilling.

From there, you are taken on a tour through hell. You see the gallows where people were hanged, the execution grounds where prisoners were shot, the torture chambers, and then the gas chambers and crematoria.

"These personal items, pictures, and names illustrate that each death was an individual tragedy"

Seeing displays of thousands and thousands of shoes, suitcases, crockery, and children’s clothing, that prisoners arriving at Auschwitz had brought with them, besides the pictures of prisoners on the walls, and the “Book of Names” of those killed, provides a reminder both of the vast scale of the killing but also that every one of the million and a half people killed was an individual human being.

Statistics help illustrate the gravity of what happened, but these personal items, pictures, and names illustrate that each death was an individual tragedy.

In Block 11, I was taken down to the basement, to Cell 18 where a Franciscan priest, Father Maximilian Kolbe — now canonized as a saint — was murdered on Aug. 14, 1941. He offered his life in exchange for a fellow Auschwitz prisoner who had been sentenced to death — literally following the principle in St John’s Gospel that “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

St. Maximilian Kolbe was sentenced to death by starvation in a bunker but was subsequently executed by lethal injection. In Cell 18 today stands a large Paschal candle placed there by Pope St John Paul II — a rare light amid the darkness.

Going from Auschwitz to nearby Birkenau takes one further into that darkness. While Auschwitz was built as a concentration camp where many, but not all, were executed, Birkenau was constructed specifically as an “extermination camp.”

Upon entering through the archway under the famous building in front of the railway tracks, you immediately see the remains of gas chambers and crematoria, surrounded by watch towers.

About a million people — 90 percent of those who were killed at Auschwitz — died in Birkenau. Commemorative plaques in multiple languages read: “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”

As I reflected on the horrors of Auschwitz and Birkenau, my thoughts turned to the genocides and crimes against humanity perpetrated in our world today. Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is not simply a history lesson.

"The sight of people being shaven-headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing"

While the Holocaust should always be recognized as a unique and particularly appalling atrocity in a category of its own, and one should be cautious about drawing comparisons, nevertheless some of the same crimes committed in the Nazi concentration camps are repeated today.

In Asia alone over the past decade, at least two genocides have been perpetrated and continue: the genocides of the Uyghurs in China’s western Xinjiang region and the Rohingyas in Myanmar, both predominantly Muslim peoples.

Both have been recognized as genocides by the United States government and other international experts. Indeed, it is significant that in the case of the Uyghurs, it has been the Jewish community around the world that has been at the forefront of the campaign to stop the genocide.

In 2020, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, took the very rare step of comparing the Uyghurs’ suffering with the Holocaust.

She said that nobody could see the evidence and fail to note what she describes as “similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilized; and the grim specter of concentration camps.”

And the late former Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote: “As a Jew, knowing our history, the sight of people being shaven-headed, lined up, boarded onto trains, and sent to concentration camps is particularly harrowing. That people in the 21st century are being murdered, terrorized, victimized, intimidated, and robbed of their liberties because of the way they worship God is a moral outrage, a political scandal, and a desecration of faith itself.”

Over a million Uyghurs are in prison camps in China, subjected to torture, slave labor, sexual violence, and — crucially — forced abortions and forced sterilization. It was on these latter counts that in 2021 the independent Uyghur Tribunal chaired by the former prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic, Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, found genocide.

As I walked through Auschwitz and Birkenau, I thought of the Uyghurs. I also kept in my mind’s eye the displacement camps in Myanmar, particularly for the Rohingyas.

"It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say"

And I had in my thoughts and prayers the gulags of North Korea too. It is ten years since a United Nations Commission of Inquiry chaired by the distinguished Australian judge Justice Michael Kirby concluded that Kim Jong-un’s regime is perpetrating crimes against humanity. That report should not simply sit on a shelf but should be a manual for action to stop these atrocity crimes and hold the perpetrators to account.

The persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China, incarcerated in “re-education through labor camps” such as Masanjia and subjected to the barbaric crime against humanity of forced organ harvesting, the atrocities committed against Tibetans over the past seventy years, and the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated against Myanmar’s other ethnic nationalities were also in my thoughts.

If one is to learn anything from Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is that in too many parts of our world today history is repeating itself. We must act earlier, faster, and more robustly to stop it doing so.

The words of Ronald S. Lauder, displayed soon after the entrance to Auschwitz, make clear: “World silence led to Auschwitz, world indifference led to Auschwitz, world anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz. Do not let this happen again.” Yet in too many places, it is “Never again” all over again.

Primo Levi was right when he said: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”

Two days after I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, I went to the factory where Oskar Schindler rescued Jews from the Holocaust. Now a museum, it serves as another reminder of the horrors of that period of history — but also of the good that one man can do.

I had previously visited his grave at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, and now I could see the place from which his rescue missions operated. Photographs of the thousand or more Jews he saved line the walls.

“Life makes sense as long as you save people,” Schindler once said. Those words should serve as a reminder to us all.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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