So far away, so close to home: International Holocaust Remembrance Day
On Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz camp complex in occupied Poland. What the Soviet liberators found was grim enough, but most Auschwitz prisoners still alive in 1945 had already been forced by the Nazis on death marches weeks earlier.
An estimated 60,000 of them were brutally driven westward to other camps. Whoever fell behind was shot. An estimated 15,000 died during those marches.
Auschwitz was the largest extermination camp that Nazi Germany had built in Europe to murder Jews, Roma and Sinti, political prisoners, and Soviet prisoners of war, or to force prisoners into heavy labor — which often meant death by attrition.
Doris Martin, born Szpringer, was one of the prisoners in Auschwitz. As a Jewish-Polish teenager, upon arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau, she was selected for slave labor and thus spared immediate death in the gas chambers. Put on a transport to a different women’s labor camp administered by the infamous Gross-Rosen concentration camp, Doris barely survived the harsh conditions.
After the war, Doris made her way to the United States and eventually settled in Flagstaff, where she became part of Arizona’s social fabric. Forever thankful that postwar America had finally opened its doors for the remnants of the surviving Jewish community in Europe, she and her husband, Ralph Martin, created the Martin-Springer Institute in 2001 at Northern Arizona University, dedicated to the teaching of the Holocaust and attending to current grave injustices.
Doris became a neighbor among neighbors in Arizona; and, yet, the Holocaust haunted her for the rest of her life. “Liberation brought us a new life,” she wrote in her memoir, Kiss Every Step, “however, none of us was destined for a truly normal life. The wounds may scar over but they are easily reopened and never be completely healed.”
Today, the word “Auschwitz” has come to symbolize the sum total of the ferocious genocidal antisemitism that Nazi Germany unleashed across Europe, six years after Hitler manipulated the weaknesses of Germany’s first democracy and took dictatorial powers in 1933. Because of the incomprehensible scope of this genocide, and to remember the Soviet liberation of the largest camp, the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Young people in Arizona have heard the Auschwitz name, but they are separated from the camp by more than three generations and 6,000 miles. Why should it matter to them?
When I teach a semester-long course on the Holocaust at Northern Arizona University, my students do not know where to place Auschwitz on a map, how long it operated, or that it was just one among thousands of Nazi labor, transit, and concentration camps.
I am not stating this with any moral indignation: After all, that is what we do in education — we teach because people don’t know yet.
Let’s keep my students’ initial unfamiliarity in perspective. My Holocaust courses fill quickly with young people from across all disciplines; yet, were I to teach a course on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, I would have a hard time getting students to sign up. “Rwanda” would just draw a blank stare, whereas “Auschwitz” and “Holocaust” still resonate, even if students can’t name correctly what they are about.
That is where education begins. Education can start with a vague awareness of “Auschwitz,” but it cannot end there.
For those who survived, their stories complicate any simple understanding of the Holocaust. I am thinking here of Arizona resident Jane Lipski. In 2013, we traveled with university students to her home in Tucson to interview her for the exhibit we worked on, Through the Eyes of Youth: Life and Death in the Bedzin Ghetto.
Both Jane and Doris lived as teenage girls in the Polish town of Bedzin under Nazi German occupation. Forced into the ghetto, Jane joined the Jewish youth resistance. After seeing her parents deported to Auschwitz, she escaped and found refuge in a resistance group in Slovakia, until Soviet soldiers captured her.
With a promise of asylum, the Soviets sent Jane to Moscow where, upon arrival, she was accused of espionage and put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to five years in one of Stalin’s gulags. In 1947, two years after the Holocaust ended, she was granted amnesty and eventually found her way to Tucson. History is tragic and complicated.
Later we learned that Jane Lipski, born Yadzia Szpiegelman, is part of the same family as Art Spiegelmann, the author of the famous graphic novel “Maus”: Her and Art’s fathers were cousins. History is intricate and surprising.
The Holocaust did not begin in Auschwitz. Holocaust studies needs to talk about the poisonous ideology that developed in Germany after the First World War, years before the Nazis destroyed democracy and created the ghettos and camps. Lethal conspiracies about Jews started in small, radicalized groups of mostly disenchanted men that slowly seeped into the mainstream, until Hitler’s Nazi party turned it into a deadly force.
To teach the Holocaust means introducing students to Germany’s interwar period, where the complacency of the political center did not counter effectively antisemitic ideologies.
Learning about the past, learning from the past, and inoculating students against prejudice and hatreds — these are all efforts that connect us and can happen right in our communities.