70 years on: the horrors of Auschwitz continue to haunt us

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IT was the closest thing to hell on earth. The worst display of unspeakable human barbarism and destruction the world had ever known.

The death camp of Auschwitz was built with one purpose – to systematically annihilate and wipe off the face of the earth an entire people.

An industrialised, bureaucratic killing factory, where with unfailing efficiency, more than 1.3 million people were murdered, 90 per cent of them Jews. Some historians believe the real death toll to be as high as two million.

Auschwitz was the centrepiece of Hitler’s Final Solution, or as one commentator wrote, the capital of the death empire that resulted in the extermination of six million Jews, plus millions of others.

When the Jews arrived in Auschwitz, after being herded into crowded cattle trucks and shipped by rail, German physicians and Joseph Mengele, who conducted vile experiments and surgeries on twins and pregnant women, decided who should live and who should die. Children, the elderly, and the ill were usually the first go straight to the gas chambers.

Trapped inside, the anguished prisoners, knowing they only had a few minutes to live before they would choke from the Zyklon B, mustered the willpower and amazing strength to scratch into the walls the words, “Never Forget”.

When the battle-hardened Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz 70 years ago this week, they could not believe the horrors they saw at the scene of the most chilling and devastating crime in history.

It was beyond imagination.

They discovered a few thousand survivors, starved and tortured, standing barefoot in the snow, as well as the gas chambers, the crematoriums, the six tonnes of human hair, and the mass graves.

Many nations knew about the calculated, deliberate extermination of the Jews but remained shamefully silent and indifferent. And Hitler had many collaborators and willing servants in Germany and in Europe.

Despite all our hopes and aspirations, the memory of humankind is short. The world today sees acts of genocide in Syria, in Sudan, in the Congo, in Nigeria, in Myanmar, and does very little to stop the atrocities, closing its eyes to these inconvenient, uncomfortable horrors. Globally, anti-Semitism is growing at an unbelievable rate, the worst since World War II.

Over the last year, there’s been a terrible increase in the incidence of violence and murder of Jews, the most recent in the Kosher supermarket in Paris.

Physical and verbal assaults, firebombing of synagogues and anti-Semitic graffiti are becoming unacceptably common.

Some Jews are afraid to wear clothes that will identify them as Jews, even here at home.

This should remind us that the shadow of anti-Semitism continues to darken our skies.

Auschwitz carries the harrowing universal truth that a civilised, scientifically developed society is capable of shocking savagery, oppression, and slaughter. And since such states can succumb to barbaric acts and instincts, it’s our duty to be alert to any ideology that breeds irrational hatred, and to fight this evil wherever it lurks.

The sobering lesson of Auschwitz and the Holocaust is that each individual has a role to play in ensuring that bigotry, fanaticism, discrimination, and intolerance never take root in our country and poison our hearts.

It also means that all free nations must unite in the battle against terrorism and tyranny that threatens us all.

When you see anyone victimised on the basis of race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, faith, political persuasion, age or social and economic status, speak up and confront this bias.

Erasing prejudice begins with teaching our children to respect, value and appreciate all people, regardless of where they came from or what their surname is.

Teach them to stop judging, categorising and labelling people. Holocaust education is essential if we want to end, or at least reduce, anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.

I urge all schools to take their students to a Holocaust museum so they can hear survivors share their personal stories of grief and loss, but also triumph.

As George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Future generations must be more tolerant than those who preceded them to ensure that “Never Again” is not an empty promise.

 This article was originally published in the Herald Sun, January 29, 2015.