The afternoon of January 27th, 1945, a vanguard unit from the Red Army crossed over into Hell: Auschwitz. The SS, pressured by the Eastern advancement of the Soviet Army, had quickly evacuated, pushing the thousands of deportees who could still hold themselves up, and whom they had not had time to exterminate, through the cold and the snow towards the West. These "death marches" leave dark traces today across the landscapes the unfortunate prisoners traversed while living their last breaths, to be felled by their escorts.
At Auschwitz, hundreds of thousands of cadavers lay scattered in the paths separating the barracks for as far as one can see. Such are the phantoms of this realm of inhumanity, silhouettes of unbelievable mass, who look, prostrated, at their liberators, or slowly approach them. A Dante-like spectacle that General Vassili Petrenko, commander of the 11th Artillery Division, will never forget. Much later, he would confide: "Emaciated detainees, in striped clothing, approached us and spoke to us in different languages. Even if I had seen so many men die on the front lines, I was shocked by these prisoners, transformed by the Nazis' hidden cruelty into living skeletons. I had read many pamphlets about the Nazi treatment of Jews, but I read nothing about the extermination of children, women or the elderly. It was at Auschwitz that I learned the fate of Europe's Jews." Likewise forever marked is Sergeant Ivan Sorokopound, of the 507th Regiment of Riflemen: "Through the holes in their rags we could see their fleshless limbs and bodies. In their case, the expression to be nothing but skin and bones was not just an image; it was the precise reality. They had a putrid odor, these living dead. They were dirty beyond any description. Their eyes appeared enormous and consumed their entire faces. Their pupils were abnormally dilated. An inhuman, animal look emanated from them, indifferent to those surrounding them."
In this God-forsaken place that has become the symbol of the Holocaust, more than 1.3 million deported humans were murdered, amongst which 1.1 million Jews and 200,000 children. Behind the armored doors of the gas chambers they were killed, by beatings, by hunger and thirst, by freezing cold and scorching heat, by slave labor, sickness, torture and medical experimentation. Never in the history of human existence had crime attained such an industrial level. The killing conglomerate-formed by Auschwitz 1, Birkenau-Auschwitz 2 and Monowitz-Auschwitz 3, in addition to some 40 secondary camps-devoured almost all of those deported on the 77 trains that left France, containing more than 75,000 Jews. In 1945, there were only 2,500 survivors, marked with a tattooed number, as if they were cattle.
Seventy years later, many have disappeared. Thus, the grave necessity weighs on us to document the accounts of the last remaining survivors. Only they can recount the daily life of what Samuel Pisar has named "the worst catastrophe ever perpetrated by men, against men."
Simon Gutman, tattoo number 27815: "Dying or not dying was no longer a concern. We found ourselves beyond discouragement. Madness consumed us. We resigned ourselves before the perspective of a death that would abridge our suffering. By day and by night, we lived in death."
Samuel-Milo Adoner, number B10602: "We knew we were condemned. Death bit at our heels. The ovens roared at full force. Despite all this, we held on. The will to live."
Ginette Cherkasky-Kolinka, number 78599: "Returning from the worksites, we carried the cadavers. We didn't feel sorry for the dead. We blamed them for dying in our unit. Despite their small weight, they were too heavy for us. We were so exhausted."
Sarah Lichtsztejn-Montard, number A7142: "In groups of three or four we shoveled quicklime on the heap overflowing with bodies."
Jacques-Adolphe Altman, number 173708: "I saw the SS throw babies, young children, alive into the flames. The horror of horrors!"
Addy-Adolphe Fuchs, number 177063: "My morale left me. I wanted to finish myself off on the electric fences. My friends knocked me out in order to calm me down."
Charles Baron, number A17594: "Birkenau. An odor of death, burned flesh, filth and dirt."
Yvette Dreyfuss-Levy, number A16696: "Casually, an SS officer decided who would go to join the Himmel Kommando, leaving Birkenau through the chimney."
Raphaël Feigelson, number B3747: "The SS and the Kapos had every right to kill. They didn't keep themselves from exercising it."
In If This Is a Man, Primo Levi, number 174517, would write, "The future rose up before us, grey and shapeless, like an invincible barrier. For us, history had come to an end."
Since 1967, a monument has stood at the extreme end of the Judenrampe, where the death convoys dumped the human remains of Birkenau: a mound of somber stones, where at the base rest 21 engraved plaques in every language of Europe, including Yiddish. It reads, "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 - 1945."
Today, the "cry of despair" has passed into the forgotten, and the "warning" is no longer heard. In Europe, and in France especially, anti-Semitic acts and phrases propagate like a virus. "Death to Jews" chanted in protests, anti-Semitic tags on Jewish-owned stores, shots fired at synagogues, Jewish graves defaced... In some neighborhoods, men do not dare to wear their yarmulkes out of fear of being insulted and harassed. In some schools, history professors gloss over the Holocaust for fear of causing a riot in class.
This very month of January 2015, at the Porte de Vincennes in Paris, two days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, four clients of the Jewish supermarket Hyper Cacher were killed by Amedy Coulibaly. The previous month, a man was beaten and his wife raped, in Créteil, in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris. In March of 2012, in Toulouse, three children were murdered by Mohammed Merah. In January of 2006, a young man named Ilan Halimi was tortured to death by Youssouf Fofana and his "gang of barbarians" in the Greater Parisian region. All of these victims were targeted for being Jewish.
In 1919, in a letter to his friend Adolf Gemlich, Adolf Hitler insists on his objective: "the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general..." Fourteen years later, he was in power in Germany. Twenty-six years later, the vanguard of the Red Army discovered Auschwitz and Europe prepared to celebrate with joy the end of Nazi Germany.
So today, Albert Camus' final sentence in his work The Plague resonates as a word of warning:
He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightenment of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
This post was originally published on HuffPost France and translated into English.