Director Steven Spielberg told a group of Holocaust survivors on Monday that Jews are again facing the ‘perennial demons of intolerance’ from anti-Semites who are provoking hate crimes and trying to strip survivors of their identity.
His warning came in a speech to dozens of Auschwitz survivors the evening before official commemorations marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
About 300 survivors will gather with leaders from around the world Tuesday to remember the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the millions of others killed in the Holocaust. Leaders expected include the presidents of Germany and Austria, while the United States is sending a delegation led by Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who is an Orthodox Jew.
Spielberg, the Oscar-winning director of the 1993 Holocaust film ‘Schindler’s List,’ was introduced by an 81-year-old survivor, Paula Lebovics, who praised him as ‘a man who has given us a voice in history.’
In a short speech, Spielberg then spoke of how his own Jewish identity evolved, first as a boy learning to read numbers from the numbers tattooed on the arms of survivors, and as an adult when he filmed ‘Schindler’s List’ in Krakow.
But he warned of ‘anti-Semites, radical extremists, and religious fanatics’ who are again provoking hate crimes — a warning that comes after radical Islamists massacred Jews at a kosher supermarket earlier this month in Paris.
Spielberg also noted that there are now Facebook pages that identify Jews and their geographic locations with the intention to attack them, and a growing effort to banish Jews from Europe.
‘These people … want to all over again strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity,’ he told them. He stressed the importance of countering that hatred with education and preserving Auschwitz and other historical sites.
Earlier in the day some of the survivors traveled an hour and a half by bus from Krakow to Oswiecim, the town where the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is located. There they prayed for their murdered loved ones amid the barracks and barbed wire of the former Nazi death camp, with one survivor crying out in a pained voice: ‘I don’t want to come here anymore!’
Rose Schindler, 85, who was one of 12 survivors from a family of more than 300 people, returned once 20 years ago but said she wanted a final visit to mourn her parents and four siblings who were killed in the Holocaust. She was separated from them upon arrival in Auschwitz with no time to say goodbye and survived because she was selected to do slave labor.
‘I have no graves for my mother and sisters and brother, my father. So this somehow is a way to say goodbye,’ Schindler said.
Together, several of the survivors said kaddish, or the Jewish prayer for the dead, next to the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign that hangs above the entrance to the camp. That translates into ‘work makes you free,’ a cynical statement given that the Nazis killed most of their prisoners.
Marcel Tuchman, a 93-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and three other Nazi camps, reflected on the unspeakable suffering of the Jews, Gypsies, and others who were tortured and executed at Auschwitz, many in gas chambers.
‘The overwhelming statistics are not the stories to be told,’ Tuchman said. ‘The stories could only be told by the victims. Unfortunately their voices were silenced by gas and the crematoria, so we are here, the survivors, to speak for them and honor the memory of their suffering.’
Mordechai Ronen, an 82-year-old survivor from Hungary who now lives in Canada, made the trip very reluctantly and said he wasn’t sure he had the strength to handle it emotionally. After the survivors prayed in Hebrew he cried out, ‘I don’t want to come here anymore!’
The concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945, in the last months of the war. The Soviet advance from the east forced the Nazis to retreat from occupied eastern Europe to Germany and they took many of their prisoners to kill along the way. However, they left several thousand behind, among them children and prisoners close to death.
The World Jewish Congress and the USC Shoah Foundation helped bring the survivors to Auschwitz for the anniversary.
FULL TEXT OF STEVEN SPIELBERG’S SPEECH TO HOLOCAUST SURVIVORS
I want to thank the many survivors along with their family members for being here this evening to share this moment with you. [It’s] incredibly meaningful for all of us and it’s a great great honour for me in so many personal ways. After 53,000 of you gave to our foundation your stories of life and death I feel like I belong to each and every one of you. We all feel that way.
When we are young we have profound experiences which if not detectable at that time serve our initial comprehension of human behavior and more specifically of pain and of trauma.
I’ve spoken before about how one of my earliest learning experiences, one of my earliest memories, is learning how to read numbers from Holocaust survivors showing me their tattoos when my grandmother and grandfather taught English in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Hungarian survivors, and as a little kid I understood what the numbers were saying, but I certainly could not grasp the magnitude of the numbers, that they were in fact indelible marks of death, unimaginable suffering, unimaginable loss. But I know now that tracing my identity as a Jew is an ever-evolving process.
The learning of the numbers as a child, number one. As an adolescent seeing antisemitism amongst some of my classmates and some people in our neighbourhoods, and then as an adult, coming here to Krakow, Poland, to make Schindler’s List. If you’re a Holocaust survivor your identity as a Jew was threatened by the Third Reich. Your identity is flooded with mortality, [and] unspeakable acts of hatred, but your identity is also one of resilience and an incomparable appreciation of life despite all those who tried to take it away from you.
Your identity is in the courage you have shown in telling your stories. Your identity having trusted me and the Shoah Foundation as the custodian of some of your stories. You’ll survive as long as children can listen to your words, listen to what your eyes are saying, too, and carry your messages in their own futures and into all generations to come. That’s our mission at the Shoah Foundation.
Now if you were born a Jew after the Holocaust, like me, your identity can only be fully explored by one’s willingness to acknowledge and embrace it, by your eagerness to find and root out what invoked the Holocaust and what triggered those and many other atrocities in the form of genocide and terrorism. The Holocaust, we understand and respect this, the Holocaust, except for you and maybe even including you, is incomprehensible.
So making Schindler’s List here in Krakow and speaking to survivors, these are the ways I tried to comprehend the Holocaust. When I talked to survivors they told me that thinking of the day when they could be heard, when they could share their own stories and identities, had given them solace. And I’m grateful to these survivors, not only for their bravery in the face of genocide, but because in wanting to help them find their voices, I got to find my own voice, and I got to find my own Jewish identity….
If you are a Jew today, in fact if you are any person who believes in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, you know that like many other groups we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance. Anti-semites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crime – these people that want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity, and just as we talk about our personal histories and what makes us who we are, these people make their own points. Facebook pages, for instance, identifying Jews and their geographic locations with the intention to attack, and the growing effort to banish Jews from Europe.
The most effective way we can combat this intolerance and honor those who survived and those who perished is to call on each other to do what the survivors have already done, to remember and to never forget.
Taking on this task is an exceptional responsibility.
It means preserving places like Auschwitz so people can always see for themselves how hateful ideologies can become tangible acts of murder. It means sharing and sustaining the testimonies of witnesses so that they can endure for teachers and students around the world their testimonies give to each survivor everlasting life and give to all of us everlasting value. Which brings us to where we are now, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and despite the obstacles we face today I feel reassured by our shared efforts to combat hatred. And my hope for tomorrow’s commemoration is that the survivors with us and those survivors from all round the world feel confident that we are renewing their call to remember, that we will not only make known their own identities but in the process help form a meaningful collective conscience for generations to come.
On this anniversary, let’s all be renewed by the knowledge that ours is a just cause and that we will make sure that the lessons of the past remain with us in the present so that we can now and forever find humanitarian ways to fight inhumanity. It’s an honor to be with all of you today.
SOURCE: The Associated Press