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On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Paying Tribute To Victims and Survivors47:20
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Psychoanalyst, scholar and writer Anna Ornstein. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Psychoanalyst, scholar and writer Anna Ornstein. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. And why three generations later, we must still never forget.

Guests

Anna Ornstein, psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, scholar and writer. She is an Auschwitz survivor, who wrote about her experiences in the book "My Mother's Eyes: Holocaust Memories of a Young Girl."

Alvin Rosenfeld, professor of English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. Director of the university’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. (@IUBloomington)

Interview Highlights

75 years ago today, Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Over 1.1 million men, women and children died at Auschwitz — one of the largest Nazi concentration camps in Poland.

Anna Ornstein was 17 years old when she was taken to Auschwitz and separated from much of her family, in June of 1944.

Ornstein spoke with On Point’s Meghna Chakrabarti about her story of survival, and why, after all these years, we must never forget.

On her experience on the train car to Auschwitz

Anna Ornstein: “It is very difficult to describe what it is like, but I can try, if anybody wants to hear the details. But whose hand was I holding? My mother held onto my hand. She was very much aware that it is impossible for me to hold on to both my mom and dad. ... We were about … 100 people, and there was a lot of noise. There were people who came into the wagon and started to say — in Yiddish, which I did not fully understand. But the message was, ‘Give the babies to the older people.’ My mother somehow got the idea that maybe babies and older people will be selected. That they will be dying here, and that maybe the people who came into the wagon tried very hard to get the young women — holding the babies — that they would be able to survive. But can you imagine that a mother would give away her baby under these circumstances? [Being] aware of what is going on?

"So, maybe it will be helpful for me to say the time of the year that we arrived in Auschwitz. Because it would give you an idea what it was like when the doors opened, and these people came into the wagon and tried to give this message. Actually, this is June. The first part of June, I don't know the day, but now I know that it happened to be the time that the American troops were landing in Normandy. We were hoping for that. But we were not aware of the fact that the American troops were there. And so, you know, here is the hope. But at the same time, the total inability to imagine what is ahead of us.”

On what happened after the doors to the car opened

Anna Ornstein: “Now, first, you had to get out of the car. And you are being pushed and shoved. When we are here in this studio, you don't hear the dogs barking, the Germans screaming, ‘Schnell, schnell' ['fast’ in German]. We always had to hurry. You don't know why you had to hurry. So if you're asking me what happens first as we're getting out, I was not fully aware of the process of selection. That very moment I cannot visualize right now.

"We came back to Auschwitz at a later date. Maybe I can tell you about that. I was much more conscious of the selection process and the presence of a particular man called the 'Mengele' [Josef Mengele] who was in charge of that. But this first time around, I just relied on my mother holding my hand. ... And the next thing I can just remember more clearly was that we were pushed and shoved into an area where we were organized into a column. This was, by the way, the German way of organizing the people immediately. They say you have to stand by [groups of] five so that they could count. They can look through the lines and see the people. By then I was definitely separated from my father and my grandmother, and my uncle and my extended family.”

Did you ever see them again?

Anna Ornstein: “No. Those people, no. No, I had no idea. Yes, now we know. You know, and I know. But I had no idea that people [were] actually being killed there, no. My mother, again, I have to bring her into this story because she smelled the smell. But we didn't know what we are smelling. Very heavy smoke. This is a middle of the day in June. And there is no sun, because there is so much smoke. And only after we exited — when we were already on the ground — I heard my mother telling the wife of her cousin that she thought this smell smelled like burning flesh, human flesh. I overheard that. I got scared and my mother — like a mother would — turned to me, said, ‘No, this is just a rumor.’ Trying to keep me innocent. And she managed to do that because would anybody even consider that human flesh is burning? But she was right.”

"I had no idea that people [were] actually being killed there."

Anna Ornstein

On concerns over modern-day hatred in the United States

Anna Ornstein: “We witness, when people are told, ‘Go back where you came from.' These are young women ... whom our president said, ‘Go back.’ … What do you make of that, that people born in this country are told something like that? We are a nation of immigrants. Now, we are not supposed to open our doors to the very people we need? Our own survival. I cannot get over the fear that is being created in all of us when we listen to this kind of language and this kind of behavior. I am very committed to talk to as many young people I possibly can. I started to talk after we came to this country. And over the years it became more and more important in my mind that ... there should be some place in their lives when they know what is going on in the world. And it's interesting. I find I am going to schools quite often now. I just began to go to schools again because this is where we have an opportunity to educate young people.”

"I cannot get over the fear that is being created in all of us when we listen to this kind of language and this kind of behavior. I am very committed to talk to as many young people I possibly can."

Anna Ornstein

Alvin Rosenfeld: “What Dr. Ornstein is talking about is really crucial, and that's indifference. Her fellow countryman Elie Wiesel said that 'the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.' Coldness towards [others], cruelty done towards others, just a lack of caring. [Saying], 'It's not my business.' And if that in fact prevails, then the future is not a good one. It's true. There are things we can do, however. And Dr. Ornstein and others are doing them. And that's opened people's eyes to what happens when cruelty sets in and goes unopposed. We're living in a very, very overwrought time, now. And it's a time that [is] seeing many things come to the surface that have long existed on the margins, under the rocks, but they're now heading towards the mainstream. The internet, by the way, plays a big, big role in all of this. The biggest disseminator of hate speech, including anti-Semitic hate speech, is online. And we have to figure out a way to deal with that. And with so much else.”

"We're living in a very, very overwrought time, now. And it's a time that seeing many things come to the surface that have long existed on the margins, under the rocks, but they're now heading towards the mainstream."

Alvin Rosenfeld

From The Reading List

Reuters: "World leaders at Jerusalem conference condemn rising anti-Semitism" — "World leaders voiced alarm at resurgent anti-Semitism on Thursday as they gathered at Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz.

"Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also castigated Iran in their speeches to the World Holocaust Forum, accusing it of rabid anti-Semitism and of seeking Israel’s destruction.

"Leaders of Russia and France looked closer to home in lamenting the killing of six million Jews in Europe during World War Two by the Nazis and vowing to combat rising anti-Semitism."

NPR: "Holocaust Survivor Returning To Auschwitz: 'It's Like Going To The Family Cemetery'" — "Vladimir Munk remembers the day he walked free from Blechhammer, a sub-camp of Auschwitz in eastern Germany. 'I was happy,' Munk says. He was sick and starving, but he had survived.

"The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. The concentration camp in Poland is where more than a million people, mostly Jews, were murdered during the Holocaust. This Monday, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Munk is traveling back to Auschwitz for the first time since he was imprisoned there.

"Munk's parents were killed in Auschwitz, as were most of his family members. 'So, for me, it's like going to the family cemetery,' Munk says."

The Economist: "Archivists are racing to identify every Jewish Holocaust victim" — "Simone marienberg, a five-month-old baby, had been born in Saint-Martin-Vésubie, a hilly village in France. Salomon Ieoyda, who was close to 90, came from Thessaloniki in Greece. At least 40 members of the Horovitz family arrived from Hajduhadhaz in Hungary. There were more than 9,300 Davids and 14,400 Esthers.

"The 1.1m people killed at Auschwitz, an extermination camp in occupied Poland, were born as far away as Finland and Morocco. Most of the victims, after journeys of brutalising squalor, were led directly from the trains to the gas chambers. When the Red Army liberated the Third Reich’s biggest death factory on January 27th 1945, 75 years ago this week, it found 7,000kg of human hair shorn from the corpses.

"The tally of the dead is hard to comprehend. Of the 9.5m Jews in Europe before the war, 6m were murdered. If you spent five minutes reading about each of them, it would fill every waking hour for 90 years. The overall civilian death toll attributed to the Nazis—including Gypsies, disabled people, gays, prisoners and bystanders to combat—was perhaps three times greater."

This program aired on January 27, 2020.

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