“I realized that they were prisoners and not workers, so I called out, ‘You are free, come out.’” Vasily Gromadsky, a Russian officer remembered the day when the Red Army liberated the Nazis’ large death camp of Auschwitz. This occurred 73 years ago, on January 27, 1945.
On November, 2005 the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 as a day “for the official commemoration of the victims of the Nazi regime and to promote Holocaust education throughout the world.”
In his authoritative and comprehensive Auschwitz Chronicle published in 1989, Danuta Czech, the former head of the research department of the Auschwitz Memorial, concluded that on liberation day the Soviet Army counted some 7,000 mostly sick and exhausted prisoners, 4,000 of whom were women. Regrettably, there was no mention of the number of children still alive. In 1992, historian Barbara Distel, the former director of the Dachau Memorial Museum, concluded that the Russians counted about 180 children, including some newly-born. “Many were hospitalized, some passed away ... On the premises of Auschwitz-Birkenau 115,063 pieces of clothing of infants and children under 14 were found.”
Among the surviving children were the 10-year old twins Eva and Miriam Mozes, born in Portz, Transylvania (Hungary). Between 300 and 350 young twins, including Eva and Miriam, had been selected and subjected in Auschwitz to cruel and prolonged medical experiments under the auspices of the physician Dr. Josef Mengele, the so-called “Angel of Death,” and his staff. Most of these twins did not survive. Eva, whose parents and two older sisters were murdered at Auschwitz, later wrote that “we were not only starved for food, but we were starved for human kindness.” The Russians took pictures of the Mozes sisters that still can be viewed at the Auschwitz Museum.
Between May 24 and 27, 2001 I attended a symposium at Jagiellonian University in Cracow on the “Legacy of the Holocaust: Children and the Holocaust.” To my surprise, Eva Mozes Kor (she had married an American, also a survivor) and her translator stayed at my hotel, and we had breakfast together. On May 25 we were on the same bus that transported all symposium speakers to and from Auschwitz (one hour away from Cracow). Throughout the day, she reflected on her traumatic experiences and miraculous survival. Not long before her liberation she overheard Mengele say, “Too bad. She has only 2 weeks to live.” Eva told us that she had only one thought, “I must survive.” “[Auschwitz] is the nightmare I live with every day of my life.”
In 1995 she created headlines when she wrote a Letter of Forgiveness for Dr. H. Münch, one of the former Nazi SS doctors at the extermination camp. “This was life-changing. I had the power to forgive.” But, as she soon learned, “most of the survivors denounced me.” Her debatable motivation was, “We cannot change what happened, but we can change how we relate to it.” She is 82 and lives in Indiana. Her twin sister Miriam died of cancer in 1993.
Most Holocaust-related studies have focused on the fate of adults but less on children. “One of the most extraordinary aspects of Nazi genocide,” wrote Richard C. Lukas, “was the cold deliberate intention to kill children in numbers so great that there is no historical precedent for it ... It will remain one of the most horrendous crimes of the Nazis against humanity.” The exact number of Jewish children lost is unknown, but it is generally estimated to be 1.2 million. One must add the virtually countless non-Jewish children who lost their lives in various war-related events.
On January 27 may we remember all victims of the Third Reich, including the senseless persecution, suffering, anguish and death of children. And why is it that similar acts of human destruction have been repeated so often since 1945? Children died during genocidal killings in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur (Sudan), and during past and present violent military attacks in Bosnia, Kosovo, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and in a variety of other places.
Wars started by adults ultimately threaten the lives of innocent children. Therefore, is it not the moral duty of the international community to protect children and to give them a secure home, food, medical care and an education? The words of Miriam Therese Winter come to mind: “When children cry, when children die, the world is diminished for a child’s pain is the earth’s pain.”
Hans M. Wuerth is a professor emeritus at Moravian College. He lives in Chapel Hill.