Mordechai Ronen (Canada) is embraced by Ronald Lauder. (photo by Shahar Azran)
Fifteen Auschwitz survivors, aged 80-94, returned to the infamous camp – some for the first time – ahead of the 70th anniversary celebration of its liberation on Jan. 27. Joining the survivors on their visit was Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, who, along with the USC Shoah Foundation, organized the delegation of returning survivors from across the world.
“When I arrived in Poland, the tall trees made me immediately anxious. They reminded me of my arrival to Auschwitz – the same day my mother and little sister were gassed,” said Johnny Pekats, 80, one of the American survivors who returned to the death camp for the first time. “For years, I refused to return to this horrible place, but I finally decided to come back with my son. I wanted to say Kaddish with him there. This is my first and last visit to Auschwitz and my message for the world is that it’s not enough just to remember; we have to make sure that this never happens again.”
More than 100 Auschwitz survivors from at least 19 countries traveled to Poland as part of the WJC delegation to participate in the ceremony.
“I deeply admire the courage of these survivors,” said Lauder, who joined them at Auschwitz. “For some of them, this was the first time they returned to the place of their nightmares. Each survivor is a living testament to the triumph of good over evil, of life over death, and they are my heroes.”
There was also a reception at a Krakow hotel for the survivors and other guests, at which film director and founding chair of the USC Shoah Foundation Steven Spielberg said, “Their testimonies give each survivor everlasting life and give all of us everlasting value. We need to be preserving places like Auschwitz so people can see for themselves how evil ideologies can become tangible acts of murder. My hope for tomorrow’s commemoration is that the survivors will feel confident that we are renewing their call to remember. We will make sure the lessons of the past remain with us in the present so that we can now and forever find humanitarian ways to fight the inhumanity.”