On January 26, 2020, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder greets a group of survivors of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in front of the site’s notorious gate marked “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free). From left to right: Johnny Jablon, Tova Friedman, Angela Orosz Richt, Yvonne Engelman, WJC President Ronald S. Lauder. CREDIT: Shahar Azran/WJC
OSWIECIM (Poland) – On the site of former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and Chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation (ABMF), today rang the alarm bell on the rise of antisemitism, appealing to world leaders to advance Holocaust education before it’s too late. As part of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, the ABMF -- under Ambassador Lauder’s leadership -- organized a survivors’ delegation of more than 100 Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors and their families from the United States, Canada, Israel, Australia, Latin America and several European countries.
The preceding night, Lauder and the ABMF welcomed the survivors at a dinner gathering in Krakow also attended by Jewish community delegations from around the world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to those gathered and called the survivors “strong and incredibly courageous” and “rays of sunshine that penetrated the darkness.”
At the January 27 official International Holocaust Remembrance Day memorial ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lauder presented keynote remarks on behalf of the Pillars of Remembrance, private donors who support the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation and its mission to preserve the authenticity of the memorial site. Lauder emphasized that it was the scourge of antisemitism combined with world indifference which led to the Holocaust, and urged citizens and government leaders everywhere to speak out against intolerance and hatred.
Ambassador Lauder opened, “Today is about you, the survivors, and I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am that you are here, and in some cases, here with your children and grandchildren. Seventy-five years ago today, when Soviet troops entered these gates, they had no idea what lay behind them. And since that day, the entire world has struggled with what they found inside.”
He continued, “When we hear something that is antisemitic, when we hear someone talk about Israel unjustly, when Jews are attacked on your streets, do not be silent. Do not be indifferent. And do not just do this for the Jewish people around the world. Do this for your children, do this for your grandchildren.”
Marian Turski, a Polish Auschwitz survivor who spoke during the ceremony, warned that Auschwitz “did not fall from the sky.” He said that Auschwitz and its horrors existed as a result of world indifference to antisemitism and discrimination.
In his remarks, Piotr M.A. Cywinski, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and President of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, asked, “Where and why did we squander our basic fundamental values? When will Auschwitz become a reality that has been overcome and liberated? In the very essence of the cry of ‘never again,’ the liberation of Auschwitz continues right here, right now, every day.”
After a ceremonial blowing of the shofar, Cantor David S. Wisnia, a member of the ABFM’s survivor delegation, recited the traditional Jewish memorial prayer, El Maleh Rahamim, and invited participants to join him in the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Profiles of survivors participating in the delegation can be found at preserveauschwitz.org/survivors-stories.
In advance of joining the ABMF delegation, Ralph Hakman, 94, a survivor, shared, “The commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau is a special and perhaps last opportunity to meet with other survivors from around the world and share our mutual experience. I have come back to Poland with members of my family to honor those that perished and gather with those that survived so that our presence will be a reminder of what can happen when hate is allowed to take over. We have also gathered with the hope that future generations will co-exist in peace.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder delivers keynote remarks at the official commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, held at Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2020. CREDIT: Shahar Azran/WJC
Background on Ronald S. Lauder’s commitment to the preservation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial
Lauder, former U.S. ambassador to Austria, dedicated his efforts to the preservation of the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau after visiting the site with his family in 1987 and finding a state of disrepair that threatened its disappearance. He committed to its preservation for future generations, shortly thereafter bringing in curators from the Egyptian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to assess the needs and create a plan. Lauder, with the help of Auschwitz survivors Kalman Sultanik and Ernest Michel, raised the initial $40 million from 19 countries to ensure the site’s preservation. Lauder has donated tens of millions of dollars toward the memorial site’s preservation.
In 2003, with the financial support of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum opened its Conservation Laboratories. The laboratory’s mission is to preserve material traces of the camp, including every shoe, every document and every building that remain at the site.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation
Today, Ambassador Lauder remains deeply involved in the memorial site’s preservation through his role as Chairman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation (ABMF). The ABMF is a New York-based nonprofit organization that was established in 2012 to support the mission of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation in Warsaw. Under Ronald Lauder’s leadership, the ABMF has substantially contributed to the Pillars of Remembrance endowment fund for the preservation of the memorial site. That fund was established in 2009 by the Warsaw-based Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation.
Background on World Jewish Congress’ work to protect Holocaust memory
The WJC is committed to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and of the millions of Jews and countless Jewish communities destroyed during the Holocaust, and to advocating on behalf of its survivors and their families. The WJC works to raise public consciousness of the dangers of religious, racial and ethnic oppression and persecution. In the weeks leading up to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the World Jewish Congress launched its fourth annual #WeRemember campaign to spark a global dialogue around the need for better, stronger and more widespread Holocaust education. The campaign invited participants to take a picture of themselves holding a sign with the words “We Remember” and to then share the photo on social media.
Official commemoration video and photos
A recording of the commemoration can be found at auschwitz.org and youtube.com/AuschwitzMemorial.