A baby boomer who’s been to Auschwitz

There was a world-changing event that ended before the first baby boomer was born, yet had impact on every one of us yet to come: World War II. And the most gruesome of all the scenes from that war are scenes from the Nazi death camp in Poland called Auschwitz. BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs went there several times for ABC News, and recently wrote this column about what sticks with him the most.

It might surprise you, but after sympathetic stories in the media recently, all related to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, there’s still more to say. The anniversary has passed, the world has moved on… but still, because the import of Auschwitz and all it symbolizes shouldn’t be revived only on a ten-year anniversary, there’s more to say.

The Auschwitz Gate.

The Auschwitz Gate.

There are two little words, in fact, that speak volumes about why we should keep talking about Auschwitz, and Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Two words, immortalized by the aging author and archivist of the Holocaust, Eli Wiesel, in his own firsthand Auschwitz account called “Night.” The two weighty words are, “Never forget.”

I wasn’t even born when the dark dust of Europe’s Jews rained from the sky, yet I’ll never forget the cold chill I’ve felt walking through Auschwitz, which I’ve done three times as a reporter, once with Wiesel himself. Not just because I knew what had happened there— more than a million hapless humans gassed until they were gone; thousands subjected to sadistic and unscientific tests by the merciless Dr. Mengele; tens of thousands starving and suffering as slaves for the Nazi war machine.

Hungarian Jews arrive Auschwitz.

Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz.

No, the chill that ran through me on each visit was borne from my effort to even slightly imagine what it actually felt like to be there which, for all of us who weren’t, is impossible. But I tried anyway. I tried to imagine being imprisoned there. And waging a struggle not to die. Arguably, death was the less frightening fate; the supreme struggle was to survive. A struggle not to starve. Not to collapse. Not to freeze. Not to surrender.

And simple though it sounds, not to lose your shoes.

The haunting image of shoes of Auschwitz victims.

The haunting image of shoes of Auschwitz victims.

Shoes, I’ve been told, were an inmate’s salvation. The margin between death and life was so thin, it was defined in the precarious existence of every inmate by his shoes. If he could keep his shoes, he might tolerate the bitter, bleak, dark, dismal climate of the camp. If his shoes were worn through, or lost, or stolen, it was a death sentence as sure as the ultimate abuse bestowed on those who went straight from their train to their execution.

Children who survived Auschwitz.

Children who survived Auschwitz.

Never forget. The words are easy to utter, more difficult to uphold. Just look around the world since World War II and see how forgetful mankind has been. In conflicts I’ve covered from Zimbabwe to Afghanistan, from the Sahara to Northern Ireland, man kept forgetting the meaning of humanity. In a way, the incitements aren’t even important: power, greed, territory, nationalism, and maybe more than ever before, racism and religion. For whatever reason, man forgot.

Greg Dobbs

Greg Dobbs

A piece of me pretends that today, with global dependencies between nations and instantaneous links between peoples, we would no longer let these things motivate us to subjugate and brutalize our fellow man. But then the other piece kicks in. I think of Ukraine, where indiscriminate shells rain down and innocent citizens’ lives are shattered. Or Syria, where whole neighborhoods have crumbled, turning whole populations into wretched refugees. Or Nigeria, where fanatics have forgotten that life has any value at all. Or even Paris, where both Muslims and Jews reportedly now live in fear for their safety, and their families’.

Of the recent anniversary observance at Auschwitz, one survivor said, “We do not want our past to be our children’s future.” But somehow it could be, if “never forget” continues to be forgotten.

That’s why there’s more to say. And why we should keep saying it.

8 Comments

  1. Thank you Greg for sharing such an important, powerful and timely article. Regrettably I think many have already forgotten or do not believe it is relevant to their lives today. They are in my opinion mistaken.

  2. Excellent piece! I have visited Auschwitz on a cold November day and felt the chill of a place that was a factory of death. I’ve been moved to the core of my being by the family photos of those who lives were utterly destroyed by the philosophy of industrialised genocide. Yes, we have to remember, to keep talking about the all too human tendency to dehumanise people we see as “other” and to make it “ok” to massacre them. Alongside this, we really need to educate our children and our grandchildren to embrace all human beings as part of the great human family.

  3. Greg, this is an incredibly sensitive and important article. Unfortunately, people of the world have not only forgotten, but as time goes on, a growing segment is teaching that it never happened. In this age of undeclared wars, where the Geneva Convention need not apply, the value of human life has regressed exponentially. If these times are harbingers of days to come, the memory of Auschwitz will fade into oblivion. Thank you for elevating the words.

  4. Thank you for such a timely, personal but universal article. The spirits of the Auschwitz survivors must be looking down at us with disgust, realizing that humanity has not changed much from their days. We are still killing each other in unfathomable manner. If I were an alien, passing by this planet and glancing down at our race, I would keep going. We are not a species that I would like to meet. At least not yet. Here’s hoping we never forget. But here’s also hoping that we start to learn. Again, thanks for such a thought provoking article.

  5. Greg – thanks for this story. I wrote an article for your site with a photo of coming to America on a boat when my father was released from a camp – it was Mauthausen, not Auschwitz, but gruesome nevertheless. Atrocities continue despite the reminder of this horrific incident. I only hope and pray people like you continue to put in print how we must never forget.

  6. I remember as a child watching a documentary on the death camps. It seemed to be it was called something like “We are not forgotten”? I remember the film of men who looked like living skeletons.

  7. Greg,
    Your article brought tears to my eyes. How could one human being be so uncaring for another. Some people would like for us all to forget or pretend the death camps existed. But by remembering maybe we can play a small part in keeping it from happening again.

  8. Thank you for such a timely, personal but universal article. The spirits of the Auschwitz survivors must be looking down at us with disgust, realizing that humanity has not changed much from their days.

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