As a teenage boy I had the opportunity to work at the Lafayette Hotel in Atlantic City. After a short time working there the hotel became a kosher hotel and restaurant. I thought for sure that I would get canned, since not only was I Catholic and attending Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, but I was contemplating entering the seminary after high school. To my surprise and joy, I was kept on as busboy and waiter, the only stipulation was that I was asked to wear a kippah (yarmulke).
I had an opportunity to meet many wonderful, interesting, spiritual people. One influential person that I met at that time is still dear to my heart, Rabbi Aaron Krauss of Margate.
It was at this young age that I worked with and served many who were survivors of the Holocaust/Shoah. You could see, and some would show you, the numbers tattooed on their arms by their Nazi captors. When I met these survivors it was only 30 years since their liberation from those diabolical camps.
It’s hard to believe that this past Monday, Jan. 27, marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. Holocaust survivors gathered at the concentration camp for perhaps the last major anniversary that will include living survivors able to still tell their stories.
To commemorate the anniversary, dignitaries and officials from around the world attended one of two ceremonies over the past week, one in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem last week and the other this past Monday in Poland at the concentration camp. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of all the camps that the Nazis built and where they killed over 1.1 million people, the vast majority of them Jews.
On that day 75 years ago, the 322nd Rifle Division of the Soviet Army at 3 p.m. entered the “gate of death,” with its infamous sign that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “Work Sets You Free.” It was the entranceway to the concentration camp abandoned by the Nazis, known by its German name Auschwitz. There they found some 7,000 people near death who were not forced into death marches, as well as the bodies of over 600 killed by the Nazis as they fled for their own lives.
The Soviets and Allied soldiers were the first to come upon the horror of finding over 1.2 million pieces of clothing, 7.7 tons of personal items, even hair, taken from the dead. Even though the Nazis attempted to hide the evidence of their crimes by blowing up the two main gas chambers used to kill hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, in their haste they left the ovens used to dispose of their crimes and the train tracks that brought their victims to the camp.
Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire, has helped to raise $110 million to preserve the site of Auschwitz, so that future generations will not forget what took place there and why it happened. He believes that just reading the history of these horrors is not enough. We need a physical place to go to and see and hear the recorded witnesses of the survivors, so that we never forget.
He said, “Almost half the survivors have died in the last five years. This will be the last time we get people together,” at Auschwitz.
On this past Sunday, the day before the 75th anniversary, Pope Francis made an appeal at his regular Sunday Angelus Prayer at Saint Peter’s Square to remember the Holocaust. He said that “in the face of this immense tragedy indifference is not admissible and memory is due.” He added, “Tomorrow we are all invited to set aside a moment of prayer and recollection, saying in our hearts: never again!” The bishops of Europe called on the faithful throughout Europe to light candles “for people murdered in death camps of all nationalities and religions.” They said that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a result of “the system based on the ideology of national socialism. It meant trampling the dignity of man who is made in the image of God.”
At my young age as a teenager I didn’t realize the depth of suffering that so many of the survivors I had met endured during their captivity. Now as a priest and interfaith officer, I continue to work toward helping others to never forget the depth of evil and depravity that comes from toleration of prejudice. Let us never forget the horror of the Holocaust, and may we work to eradicate the seeds of any future abomination by challenging hatred and prejudice in all its terrible manifestations.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.