By Monica Crowley
The first thing you notice is the silence.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, you see the infamous inscription above the main entrance gate, “Arbeit Mach Frei” (“Work sets you free,” a “cynical lie” as it’s been described), of course, and nearly two miles away at Birkenau, you note the one set of railroad tracks over which well more than 1 million people entered and never left. And yet, despite the thousands of people walking alongside you and the surrounding areas bustling with modern Polish life, you can really only hear silence.
This was my second visit to Auschwitz, a place to which I have long been drawn to bear witness. This time I was here on Yom Hashoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — to participate in the annual International March of the Living as a guest of the march organization. Along with approximately 13,000 others from around the world, including a dwindling number of survivors, we walked in that silence from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a tribute to all victims of the Holocaust.
The International March of the Living is an educational program, bringing individuals from every corner of the globe to Poland and to Israel to study the history of the genocide and to inspire individuals to battle indifference, racism and hatred that give rise to such wickedness.
The march was founded in 1988 and, today, has approximately 300,000 alumni. This year’s march, led by the presidents of Israel and Poland, was joined by about 25 United Nations ambassadors and participants from more than 40 countries, the vast majority of whom are high school students and from diverse faiths and backgrounds.
This year’s march came amid two sets of tensions — one spurred by Poland’s adoption of the so-called “Holocaust law,” which criminalizes speech accusing that nation of complicity in the Nazi atrocities. The United States, Israel and other countries have pointedly condemned the law, with Israel equating it with Holocaust denial and Washington criticizing it as a denial of free speech. Many of the marchers from the U.S. and Western Europe considered it extraordinarily important to attend this year’s event, as a way to ensure accurate representation of history.
Indeed, the organizers keep a close eye on the future. They have implemented new programs motivated by data showing that knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust is waning. A 2014 international study by the Anti-Defamation League indicated that of the 54 percent of those polled who had heard of the Holocaust, a shocking 32 percent said it is either greatly exaggerated or didn’t occur. Deeply concerned by the lack of knowledge about Nazi horrors, organizers have focused on educating future generations so the world will indeed “never forget.”
This dovetails with the second set of tensions that served as a backdrop to the march: the lead-up to and execution of U.S-led airstrikes against Syrian targets in retaliation for the Bashar Al-Assad regime’s April 7 use of chemical weapons in Douma that, observers estimate, killed more than 40 people.
Controversy has since erupted over President Trump’s decision but, while we may debate the strategic imperatives of such a strike, we cannot dismiss the moral ones. We have spent the past 90 years since the brutal use of poison gas in World War I and the past 70 years following the atrocities of the Holocaust telling ourselves “never again.” And yet, here we are, with a new monster in the Middle East using those same banned weapons in the 21st century.
Either we mean it when we say “never again,” or we don’t. And either the United States acts as a great power, or it doesn’t. When we don’t, our enemies see the lack of resolve and grow emboldened. And their crimes only escalate as a result.
That is the lesson of history: Ignoring such atrocities, drawing “red lines” and then failing to enforce them, or turning inward and pretending we shouldn’t have to lead the effort to stop them, is a grotesque moral failure and a whopping strategic one — because we will always end up fighting a bigger, more destructive conflagration down the road.
As Chief U.S. Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson declared at Nuremberg, “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
We cannot — must not — allow these monstrous acts to be repeated. That goes for Assad and any other tyrant on any scale.
As Nobel Laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.”
At the March of the Living, I was honored to be among so many others who are the living testimony for future generations. We must all keep our promise to history of “never again.”