Yesterday’s Horror, Today’s Challenge: Lessons from a visit to Auschwitz
By Daniel B. Baer
Last weekend, I traveled with a group of fellow Ambassadors to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to Auschwitz-Birkenau — a sobering visit that has become an annual tradition on the margins of Europe’s largest human rights conference.
While each visit to Auschwitz has been different, for me there have been some constants: Shock at the purposefully deplorable conditions that prisoners endured. An inability to imagine the suffering that must have permeated the crowded basement cells where prisoners were forced to stand, deprived of light, food, and water. A sickening anger in the Block 11 basement where Zyklon B was first used to snuff out human lives in a Nazi experiment. And despair looking out over the remains of building after building and the ruins of gas chambers and crematoriums at Auschwitz-Birkenau II. The size of the death camp is always staggering anew — an expanse of evil stretching out before me. Standing on the same train tracks where cattle cars full of human cargo arrived, where families were torn apart and individuals ordered across the tracks had little or no idea that they would be gassed in a matter of hours, is to stand in the steps of the criminals and the innocents.
Only a little more than 70 years ago, millions of people were systematically murdered in the heart of Europe for who they were and what they believed. Each of those individuals had a story. Family and loved ones. Hopes and aspirations. This year, I was particularly struck by the story of a mother who, in a moment of intuitive impulsiveness, pushed her son away from her side and into a group of boys to try to save his life. He returned to her and she pushed him away and told him to go. In that moment, he told her he hated her before going with the other boys. She perished; he survived. His last memory of his mother was telling her he hated her as she was saving him in a heart-wrenching act of love. And that’s just one out of more than one and a half million equally sobering and heartbreaking stories.
Those stories — and the lessons they teach us — are particularly poignant as diplomats and human rights defenders from 57 countries in Europe, Central Asia, and North America gather in Warsaw for two weeks to discuss fundamental freedoms, human rights, and human dignity. At a moment when the rise of populism, intolerance, and majoritarianism threaten the fabric of our societies, it is vitally important that we stand up — in word and deed — for the values we hold most dear. For freedom of conscience and religion; freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.
As governments and interested citizens, journalists and human rights defenders, we have a duty and an obligation to pay attention to the lessons of the past. To learn from the darkest chapters of human history the dangers of ideologies of hate, and the importance of standing up for dignity and diversity, equality and universal rights.
Auschwitz reminds us that we all have to confront evil, defend truth, unite in the face of threats to human dignity, and strive to stop any who would abuse their neighbors. In standing up for the rights of political dissidents, journalists, LGBT persons, religious and ethnic minorities, and all those who face abuses and arrests, restrictions and repression at the hands of their governments, we honor the memory of those who lives were extinguished at Auschwitz. Working to build more modern, tolerant, inclusive democratic societies, and fighting to ensure that history never repeats itself is the best way of living the words “never forget, never again”.
About the author: Daniel B. Baer serves as U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.