The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum celebrated its 20th anniversary April 28. I was there to attend a salute to the veterans of World War II and Holocaust survivors — a gathering of more than 4,000 people, including 900 survivors and 150 veterans.
We witnessed the presentation of the flags of the American divisions who liberated concentration camps in Germany and Austria. The Army orchestra played as each unit entered with its flag to an announcement of the camps they liberated. My face, and those around me, flooded with tears of sorrow and pain — as well as joy and pride — for those who finally destroyed the beast of the 20th century.
As I stood there, I recalled January 1945 when the Second Russian Army, of which I was part, moved west to seal the fate of Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich. We drove over battlefields where the remnants of vehicles were mixed with the remains of bodies.
I also remembered the summer of 1944 when the Russians liberated Belarus and entered Poland. I was part of the resistance that sabotaged the communications of the occupying forces.
I then thought of the day in 1942 when I stole weapons from a German warehouse, escaped from the forced labor camp where I had been imprisoned for six months, found a group of local Jews who had sought shelter in the surrounding forests and swamps and joined the resistance.
I recalled the horrible time in the fall of 1941 when the Germans ordered us out of our ancestral homes and herded 300 families into 15 homes, separated by barbed wire from the rest of the town, and guarded us around the clock, depriving us food, water and basic necessities. There we waited, knowing that we were doomed, trembling at the sound of mechanized vehicles that might signal the arrival of our fate. From behind the barbed wire we watched as our former neighbors went about their lives assembling in the church across the street to pray after they had been preying on us, performing weddings accompanied by the sound of music.
My mind also went back to the better days prior to 1939 when, under Polish rule, in the midst of a Belarusian minority, we enjoyed a naively tranquil life in the shtetl, a village of 300 families, a rabbi, a Hebrew day school, a bank, a free loan association, and volunteers who cared for widows, orphans, and those just passing through. That all came to an end when the Red Storm from the east and the Nazi hell that eventually engulfed all of Europe from the west converged in our place.
My thoughts returning closer to the present day, I recalled visiting an extermination camp in Poland in 2004 accompanied by my son-in-law Paul and grandsons Yossi and Boaz. After stepping out of the barracks where we saw compartments with children’s shoes, clothing and luggage marked from various countries, Paul went outside, sat on the steps and burst into tears.
What is the responsibility of those of us who survived, and those who witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps? It is to share our memories with as wide an audience as possible. We are the last of those who can tell the story in the first person, who can bear personal witness to the destruction of an entire culture. It is painful for us to reach the point in life where the world is so unsettled, where killings and bombings are a daily occurrence.
Today we live in a world where the institutions of peace are paralyzed and where war is an everyday event, an unremarkable item in the news over which we shake our heads.
In the great economic turmoil of the last few years, there is one bright spot: Israel, the bright and beautiful child of the tragedy of World War II, the dream of a people who were nearly destroyed, has emerged unscathed, one of only five countries that continued to grow and prosper during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We pray and hope that the example set by Israel will serve as a beacon to humankind.
(Moshe Baran is the president of the Holocaust Survivors’ Association in Pittsburgh.)