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The lessons of Auschwitz, 75 years after its liberation

Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps marked the 75th anniversary of their liberation Monday, gathering at the rail depot where Jews from across Europe disembarked cattle trucks to be murdered in Nazi gas chambers. Polish President Andrzej Duda urged Holocaust remembrance at a time anti-Semitic attacks in Europe and the U.S. are on the rise. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn now from talk of peace in the Middle East to a look back at the legacy of the Holocaust.

    Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland marked the 75th anniversary of their liberation today. They gathered at the rail depot where Jews from across Europe disembarked from cattle trucks and were murdered in Nazi gas chambers.

    Poland's President Andrzej Duda said the world must never forget.

    The anniversary comes at a time when anti-Semitic attacks are increasing in the United States and in Europe.

    "NewsHour" special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has our report from Southern Poland.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    When the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were greeted by about 200 starving, freezing girls and boys. Somehow, they had avoided the fate of a quarter-of-a-million children originally transported here.

    On the far left, a feisty 5.5-year-old Polish Jewish girl kept alive by a combination of good fortune, her mother's ingenuity, and her own iron will.

    Now approaching her 82nd birthday, Tova Friedman of Highland Park, New Jersey, was compelled to return for this historic anniversary.

  • Tova Friedman:

    We are here to uncover evil. That's what we are here for, to show evil and what it can do if unchecked.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Tova has spent her life campaigning to keep the memories of the Holocaust alive.

  • Tova Friedman:

    You knew you were going to die, but you didn't understand it, really, as a child. But you knew people were disappearing.

    And every time I think about it, I think of the children who aren't here, and I remember when they were taken.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Although Tova has returned here several times before, this monument to mankind's bestiality still has the power to overwhelm.

    When you see that…

  • Tova Friedman:

    Oh.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    … the barbed wire?

  • Tova Friedman:

    It scares me to death, even now. It — I remember that so well. I remember that people tried to reach it to kill — to get killed. It was easier to die than to stay here.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    On the electric fence?

  • Tova Friedman:

    Yes. But you weren't allowed to, because they wanted you to die on their terms, not your terms. So there was a guard with dogs.

    And by the time you came a little closer, you were shot. So, people — all these dead people were lying here because they never reached, they didn't reach the electric wires.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For untold thousands, this was their last view of the world, the only preserved gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz. It lacked the capacity to deal with the Nazis' objective of erasing Jews from the face of the Earth.

    Today, their factory-sized slaughterhouses and ovens in nearby Birkenau are piles of rubble. Before they fled the Soviet advance, the S.S. tried to erase their fingerprints by immolating the scene of the crime.

    Tova was once sent to the gas chamber, but she returned unscathed, because it wasn't operating on that day.

  • Tova Friedman:

    I — I just can't do this. Please, I can't do this.

    You got to say prayers. You can't do anything else but pray, you know, hoping that there is a God, it'll stop it, hoping their humanity somewhere — this was — I think this is too much for me, you know? This is real.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The lessons that Auschwitz offers the world today are exactly the same as they were when the camp was liberated 75 years ago.

    Auschwitz speaks to the dangers of religious and ethnic hatred, of the rule of the mob, of dictatorship, of totalitarianism, and also of turning a blind eye.

    Most pilgrims to this time capsule emerge thoroughly chastened. But the American whose fund-raising helped preserve the extermination camps, so the world would never forget, is deeply concerned by a global resurgence of anti-Semitism.

    Ambassador Ronald Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress.

  • Ronald Lauder:

    And, remember, anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s started very small and built up. We have seen it building over the last six years, amazingly, and it's going to keep building unless we do something about it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Despite being exhausted by the odyssey from Levittown, Pennsylvania, Cantor David Wisnia managed to sing a Hungarian song taught by a girlfriend who helped him survive Birkenau.

    Cantor Wisnia, of Polish Jewish heritage, was dispatched to Birkenau in 1942. At the railhead, when the selection process began, the teenager pretended to be older than 18 to avoid being sent straight to the gas chambers, like the souls memorialized by this solitary cattle truck.

    Wisnia managed to convince the S.S. that he was fit for work details. At first, he collected the bodies of prisoners who committed suicide. But then his captors heard about his voice and ordered him to entertain them.

  • David Wisnia:

    Now, I only lived because one word, music. And I sang a Yiddish song while in Auschwitz and Birkenau, because the S.S. Loved it.

    (SINGING)

  • David Wisnia:

    It wasn't my favorite song.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    1930s Jewish dance music serenaded Tova Friedman at her hotel in Krakow. Her story is not just about death and murder. Liberation meant rebirth, a second chance at life.

  • Tova Friedman:

    It's my birthday, January 27, absolutely. I celebrate it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Above all, Tova honors her mother, Raizel, who saved her life by hiding her next to a corpse in Birkenau as the Nazis eliminated witnesses before fleeing the Soviet advance.

    At last, the little girl was able to cry for the first time in years.

  • Tova Friedman:

    Well, first of all, you are going to make me cry now, because crying was a crime. If they heard you crying, you died. You — shoot you, right? So, I learned not to cry.

  • David Wisnia:

    If there is any way to save this world, it is to eliminate hatred, because hatred kills. Hatred, by itself, it winds up death, winds up killing. And I have learned that the hard way.

    So, if you could only live together as human beings — that is my mission in life.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In the twilight of their lives, the survivors' legacy couldn't be any clearer. But how much of the modern world is listening?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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