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  • Remembering the Auschwitz Death March 1
  • Thomas Buergenthal (bio)

A few days ago I reread an article about the Death March out of Auschwitz that I had written in 1956, only eleven years after the event. It was still all so vivid for me then: the cold Polish winter, the terrible cold, the exhausting three day march to Gliwice where we were stuffed into open railroad cars, the roadside shootings of those who could not walk any more, my own temptation to simply sit down and get it over with, how three children—two of my friends and I—evaded being shot with the rest of the small group of children who left Birkenau with us, the tightly packed railroad car that emptied out as the dead were thrown overboard while the train moved towards Germany, the snow we ate—imagining that it was ice cream, the bread that was thrown into the cars as the train passed under bridges in Czechoslovakia and the grownups who stole it from us, the cold, “Oh that cold!,” the frostbite, and the amputation of my toes that followed in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.

Today, 50 years later, the cold that I felt in my bones in 1956 I can no longer feel—it is all so blurred and so far away. It is as if I had read someone’s story and, sadly, no amount of remembering can quite recapture what it was like. Even three years ago, as I travelled by car from Auschwitz to Gliwice on a sunny day in May (probably the same road we took in January, 1945), I was struck by the short distance which had then seemed so long. I could not stop wondering whether the horror that I had experienced on that stretch of road was really me, some character out of a book, or a dream. [End Page 874]

It is not only that I am now sixty years old or that I was ten years old on that sunny, cold January in 1945 when we lined up to start on our march out of Birkenau and some claimed that they could hear the far-away sounds of artillery signalling the approaching Russian front for what we hoped would be our liberation, because I remember it intellectually but no longer emotionally and not in detail, and that is good. Museums and historians must record what happened to preserve the past. Future generations must know what some people are capable of inflicting on their fellow human beings. But, we, the survivors, to preserve our sanity and our humanity, must be forgiven for the fading memories of our suffering and pain. It is part of the healing process that has enabled us to confront the future. What we must not forget is our obligation to those who died on the Death March, in the camps, and in the ghettos. We must do our part, large or small, to ensure that those who come after us—whether they are Jewish, Haitians, Muslims, Rwandans, or human beings anywhere despite their race, religion, or nationality—are not subjected to what was done to us.

Now, what fully revives the past for me—with stark details of the Death March, of the killings and beatings along the way, of the Ghetto of Kielce, and of Auschwitz or Sachsenhausen (where I was liberated)—are the faces of the children in Bosnia or Chechnya with that terrible horror in their eyes, the pictures of starving children in Africa, the skeletal remains of the El Mozote massacre we found in El Salvador (mostly mothers and children), and the neatly stacked skulls that testify to the Cambodian genocide.

Unfortunately, the days are few and far between when, on reading the newspaper, watching television, or working as a human rights lawyer, I am not reminded of the past—again and again, I see myself, my parents, my grandparents, and my friends. The suffering of those whose stories we read about today or whose corpses we see on television—the face of that little boy whose mother was killed by a sniper as they walked hand in hand across a street somewhere in Bosnia—was our...

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pp. 874-876
Launched on MUSE
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