WARSAW, Poland — A Jewish prayer for the souls of people murdered in the Holocaust echoed Wednesday over where the Warsaw ghetto stood during World War II as a world paused by the coronavirus pandemic observed the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Most International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations were being held online this year due to the virus, including the annual ceremony at the site of the former Auschwitz death camp, where Nazi German forces killed 1.1 million people in occupied Poland. The memorial site is closed to visitors because of the pandemic.
In one of the few live events, mourners gathered in Poland’s capital to pay their respects at a memorial in the former Warsaw ghetto, the largest of all the ghettos where European Jews were held in cruel and deadly conditions before being sent to die in mass extermination camps.
From the Vatican, Pope Francis spoke of the need to remember the genocide carried out in World War II, saying it was a sign of humanity and a condition for a peaceful future.
Francis also warned that distorted ideologies could lead to a repeat of mass murder on a horrific scale. Remembering the Holocaust, he said, “also means to be aware that these things can happen again, starting with ideological proposals that claim to save a people and end up destroying a people and humanity.”
Among those commemorating from home Wednesday will be Polish-born Auschwitz survivor Tova Friedman, who arrived at the camp when she was 5 years old and was 6 when she found herself among thousands of survivors liberated by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 2020.
Friedman, who is now 82, attended last year’s event at Auschwitz and had hoped to take her her eight grandchildren there this year to help them better understand her experiences. But the pandemic prevented that.
From her home in Highland Park, New Jersey, she recorded a message of warning about the rise of hatred which will be part of a virtual observance organized by the World Jewish Congress.
Across Europe, the victims were remembered and honored in various ways.
In Austria and Slovakia, hundreds of survivors were offered their first doses of a vaccine against the coronavirus in a gesture both symbolic and truly lifesaving given the threat of the virus to older adults. In Israel, some 900 Holocaust survivors died from COVID-19 out of the 5,300 who were infected last year.
Israel, which counts 197,000 Holocaust survivors, officially marks its Holocaust remembrance day in the spring. But events were also being held by remembrance and survivors’ groups across the country, mostly virtually or without members of the public in attendance.
Meanwhile, Luxembourg signed a deal Wednesday agreeing to pay reparations and to restitute dormant bank accounts, insurance policies and looted art to Holocaust survivors.
Politicians and regular people alike were joining a World Jewish Congress campaign which involved people posting photos of themselves and #WeRemember. Those will be shown later Wednesday on a screen at Auschwitz next to the gate and a cattle car, the way victims were transported there.
The online nature of this year’s commemorations is a sharp contrast to events marking the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation last year, when some 200 survivors and dozens of European leaders and royalty gathered at the site of the former camp. It was one of the last large international gatherings before the pandemic forced the cancellation of most large gatherings.
More than 1.1 million people were murdered by the German Nazis and their henchmen at Auschwitz, the most notorious in a network of killing sites set up across occupied Europe. The vast majority of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews, but others, including Poles, Roma, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war, were also murdered.
In all, about 6 million European Jews and millions of other people were killed by the Germans and their collaborators. In 2005, the United Nations designated Jan. 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
While commemorations have moved online for the first time, one constant is the drive of survivors to tell their stories as words of caution.
Rose Schindler, a 91-year-old survivor of Auschwitz who was originally from Czechoslovakia but now lives in San Diego, California, has been speaking to school groups about her experience for 50 years. Her story, and that of her late husband, Max, also a survivor, is also told in a book, “Two Who Survived: Keeping Hope Alive While Surviving the Holocaust.”
After Schindler was transported to Auschwitz in 1944, she was selected more than once for immediate death in the gas chambers. She survived by escaping each time and joining work details.
The horrors she experienced — the mass murder of her parents and four of her seven siblings, the hunger, being shaven, lice infestations — are difficult to convey, but she keeps speaking to groups, over past months only by Zoom.
“We have to tell our stories so it doesn’t happen again,” Schindler said in a Zoom call from her home this week. “It is unbelievable what we went through, and the whole world was silent as this was going on.”
Friedman says she believes it is her role to “sound the alarm” about rising anti-Semitism and other hatred in the world, otherwise “another tragedy may happen.”
That hatred, she said, was on clear view when a mob inspired by former President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Some insurrectionists wore clothes with anti-Semitic messages like “Camp Auschwitz.”
“It was utterly shocking and I couldn’t believe it. And I don’t know what part of America feels like that. I hope it’s a very small and isolated group and not a pervasive feeling,” Friedman said Monday.
In her recorded message that will be broadcast Wednesday, Friedman said she compares the virus of hatred in the world to COVID-19. She said the world today is witnessing “a virus of anti-Semitism, of racism, and if you don’t stop the virus, it’s going to kill humanity.”
Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.