Seventy-one years ago, Soviet troops entered the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi extermination camp near Krakow, Poland, liberating the remaining 7,000 prisoners, most of them sick and dying Jews.
Days earlier, as the Red Army approached, the Nazis evacuated 60,000 other inmates, forcing them on a death march.
Dozens of elderly Holocaust survivors lit candles at Auschwitz on Wednesday — the U.N.-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day — to commemorate the dead and to pay homage to their own suffering and the ordeals their families endured.
Wednesday’s remembrance comes against a backdrop of growing anti-Semitic threats, attacks and murders in Europe.
Approximately 1 million of the more than 6 million Jews who died in massacres and a network of death camps across Central Europe died at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex — poisoned in gas chambers or killed by starvation, crushingly brutal labor and torture, or disease.
Ivan Martynushkin, a Red Army officer who turned 21 when his unit liberated the death camp, said last year: “We saw emaciated people — very thin, tired, with blackened skin. You could see happiness in their eyes. They understood that their liberation had come, that they were free.”
This year’s anniversary — a year since Jewish shoppers were gunned down in Paris by an adherent of the Islamic State terror group — coincides with a shadow cast over a new generation of Jews, driving record numbers to leave the continent for Israel or America.
“We must be honest enough to admit that more than 70 years after the Shoah, anti-Semitism is still alive in our ‘civilized’ European Union,” said Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top foreign affairs official.
In an interview with VOA, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, a native New Yorker and a dual U.S.-Polish citizen, echoed the warning.
Asked whether Jews still have a future in Europe, he said: “This is a very tense time for Jews in Europe. And it is not as simple a question to answer as it might have been five years ago. But at the end of the day, I can’t imagine that all the Jews are going to leave Europe and so, therefore, there has to be a future.”
Record French exodus
France, which has the largest Jewish population of any European country, has seen a sharp rise in anti-Semitism.
A recent report by Human Rights First suggested that more than half of all reported hate crimes last year in France were anti-Semitic, despite the fact that Jews make up only 1 percent of the French population.
The consequence has been a dramatic exodus, with a record 8,000 French Jews leaving for Israel in 2015, according to Israel’s Immigration Ministry.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Europeans of not doing enough to combat anti-Semitism. He said anti-Semitism is not merely growing among new immigrant communities on the continent, but is gaining traction across Europe.
Success in fight elusive
Schudrich, who was attacked in 2006 in central Warsaw by a 33-year-old man with ties to Nazi organizations, doesn’t entirely agree with the Israeli prime minister on the efforts of European governments.
“European leaders have not been effective in their attempts to fight anti-Semitism,” he said. “European leaders, Jewish leaders, we really have not found the effective method yet. But what is equally important is that many European leaders still really want to try.”
Schudrich welcomed remarks by German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, when she stressed the importance of dealing with anti-Semitic attitudes among some migrants arriving from countries where “hatred toward Israel and Jews is commonplace.”
She cited the fears of German Jewish leaders and argued that the need to teach the history of anti-Semitism in Europe has grown more urgent with the influx of a record 1.1 million asylum seekers to Germany last year, many from the Middle East.
“With many migrants, though, it is not only important to impart the lessons of the Holocaust, but the concepts of democracy, of multiculturalism and pluralism,” Schudrich said. “These are not concepts they have encountered in their life experiences — it is not a criticism of them; it is a reality. And if they are going to succeed in Europe, then something is going to have to change. Learning about the Holocaust is one element in a much larger picture.”