Mr. President, on January 27, 1945, the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, including Birkenau and other related camps near the Polish city of Oswiecim, was liberated by the Soviet Army. This week, people have gathered at Auschwitz and in many other places to mark the 65th anniversary of that event. I am pleased that President Obama presented a video address in which he underscored–using Elie Wiesel’s words–the sacred duty of memory.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the principal and most notorious of the six death camps built by Nazi Germany to achieve its goal of the mass extermination of the Jewish people of Europe. Built in Nazi-occupied Poland initially as a concentration camp for Poles and later for Soviet prisoners of war, it soon became a prison for a number of other nationalities.
Ultimately, a minimum 1,300,000 people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945, and of these, at least 1,100,000 were murdered at that camp. An estimated 6 million Jews–more than 60 percent of the pre-World War II Jewish population of Europe–were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators at Auschwitz and elsewhere in Europe. In addition, hundreds of thousands of civilians of Polish, Roma, and other nationalities, including in particular disabled individuals, homosexuals, political, intellectual, labor, and religious leaders, all of whom the Nazis considered `undesirable,’ as well as Soviet and other prisoners of war, perished at Auschwitz .
On that day of liberation , 65 years ago, only 7,000 camp prisoners who had passed through the infamous Auschwitz gates, the ones who promised “Arbeit Macht Frei” — “Work Will Make You Free” — managed to survive the selections, torture, starvation, disease, inhuman medical experiments, and executions that occurred at Auschwitz.
According to a new survey published this week by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, at least 41 of the OSCE’s 56 participating states commemorate the Holocaust with official events. Thirty-three participating states have established official memorial days for Holocaust victims, and January 27 is the official Holocaust Memorial Day in many European countries, including Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. I am deeply gratified that since 2005, the United Nations has also observed January 27 as a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. In fact, Auschwitz -Birkenau was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.
I personally visited Auschwitz in 2004 and cannot overstate the importance of the Memorial Museum there today in the effort to teach future generations about the Holocaust. The recent theft of the “Arbeit-Macht-Frei” sign — which, fortunately, was recovered — has certainly heightened awareness of the need for additional security measures there, and I support the efforts to secure increased funding for the preservation of the Memorial Museum.
Teaching about the Holocaust is an obligation that must be met not only at Auschwitz , but at places where people learn around the globe. As chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, I am deeply concerned by the rise of anti-Semitism and violent extremism in some OSCE participating states. In particular, I am deeply troubled by the continued prevalence of Nazi-era discourse to describe Roma. As Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, has said:
Even after . . . the Nazi killing of at least half a million Roma, probably 700,000 or more, there was no genuine change of attitude among the majority population towards the Roma.
With this concern in mind, I was pleased to learn that the United Nations invited the OSCE senior advisor for Romani issues, Andrzej Mirga, to participate in the commemoration they organized this year. Sadly, as Mr. Mirga observed, although approximately 23,000 Romani people were sent to Auschwitz , none were among the survivors liberated there 65 years ago.