Auschwitz survivor inspires some, but angers Polish leaders

Auschwitz survivor inspires some, but angers Polish leaders
Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife Elke Buedenbender, front row left, Israel's President Reuven Rivlin, center, and holocaust survivor Marian Turski, second right, attend commemorations at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

An Auschwitz survivor’s warning about indifference to discrimination is reverberating strongly in his native Poland, with some people praising the 93-year-old’s World War II anniversary speech as wise and the country’s conservative government criticizing it as overtly political.

Marian Turski, 93, was one of the keynote speakers during observances held Monday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He addressed an international audience of world leaders and about 200 other survivors of the notorious German Nazi death camp.

During his speech, Turski said the Holocaust did not “fall from the sky” all at once but took hold step by step as society’s acceptance of small acts of discrimination eventually led to ghettos and extermination camps.

He called on people to not remain indifferent when minorities are discriminated against, when history is distorted and when “any authority violates the existing social contract.”

Turski never specifically mentioned Poland’s current nationalist government in his remarks. But many understood his words as criticism of politicians and public officials who have used discriminatory language against migrants, LGBT people and religious minorities, and have sought to harness history as a political tool.

While Turski received a standing ovation on Monday, members of the conservative governing party, Law and Justice, did not applaud him.

Paweł Jabłoński, a deputy foreign minister, told The Associated Press in an emailed statement Wednesday that the government appreciated Turski’s warnings about the atrocities of World War II and preserving historical truth, but: “At the same time we strongly disagree with any attempts at abusing or misusing survivors statements for today’s political purposes – such attempts are deeply insulting to the memory of the victims.”

Turski began his speech by saying he did not want to talk about what he suffered while imprisoned at Auschwitz, during two forced death marches, or near the end of the war, when he weighed just 32 kilograms (70 pounds).

Instead, Turski delivered what he called a final warning to his grandchildren’s generation, saying that because of his age it would be his last chance.

Citing the words of another survivor, Roman Kent, he described what should be the Eleventh Commandment of the Bible: “Though shalt not be indifferent.”

“Because if you are indifferent, you will not even notice it when upon your own heads, and upon the heads of your descendants, another Auschwitz falls from the sky,” Turski said.

Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, said Turski’s message was very important because it reminded people that what allowed the Holocaust to happen was not only the evil of the Nazis, but also the indifference of the rest of the world.

He said the stir Turski’s words have caused, including negative reactions, meant “he touched people’s souls.”

“If somebody feels that he is speaking against them, then maybe that person needs to look into himself,” Schudrich said. “The fact is, this speech will be quoted for decades and decades, and I hope for centuries. It said what had to be said.”