“The Fuhrer has ordered that the Jewish question be solved once and for all, and that we, the SS, are to implement the order. I have therefore earmarked Auschwitz for this purpose.”
Heinrich Himmler, summer 1941
Dandelions and Queen Anne’s lace were thriving in tall grass around the ovens and gas chambers on the sunny day I first visited Auschwitz. Gaily colored laundry, just across the fences, billowed in breezes that once were heavy with stench. Children played in olive-drab watchtowers where Nazi guards once waited to machine gun any who dared seek to escape a more systematic death.
It was July 29, 1975, three decades and 197 days after Soviet troops liberated this hellish cornerstone of Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust.
On Tuesday, the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation. Some 300 aged survivors made it back, not so much to remember but to make sure the world will never forget. Their return has new urgency today. Anti-Semitism is rampant anew in Europe.
Watching on TV, I recalled my first visit to Auschwitz – and my second.
“Towards the end of the summer (of 1942) we started to burn bodies at first on wood pyres bearing some 2,000 corpses, and later in pits … Bodies were burnt in pits day and night, continuously.”
Rudolf Hoess, first commandant of Auschwitz, in his autobiography
For hours at Auschwitz in 1975, I reflected silently on what days and nights were like for a few acquaintances back home who’d been imprisoned as children at Auschwitz for the crime of being born Jewish in Hitler’s Germany. I’d been spared only because I was born Jewish in America.
I returned to Auschwitz the next day, not to reflect but to cover an American president’s historic visit to Auschwitz. A yellowed Newsday newspaper clipping shows I reported it was customary for world leaders to spend a couple of hours visiting Auschwitz, absorbing how more than 1 million persons were systematically slaughtered there. Also, I reported President Gerald Ford’s advance schedule allotted three minutes at Auschwitz – helicopter in, lay a wreath at a memorial, helicopter out. (What I didn’t report was this seemed out of character for Ford, a thoughtful guy who, as House Republican leader, befriended Newsday’s rookie reporter, even giving me his home number so I could always reach him.)
At the Auschwitz helipad, I saw Poland’s Communist leader Edward Gierek urge Ford to stay longer; Ford glanced at Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who nodded approval. So Ford spent 20 minutes from touchdown to takeoff.
Newsday’s article reported presidential aides’ explanation: Ford was just very busy, couldn’t even visit Auschwitz museum because it was too far away – “it is about 120 seconds away by automobile,” the article added.
The next day, Ford’s chief of staff, the most influential White House insider, walked up and said he’d showed my article to “the boss” (Ford). Well, I awaited a tirade du jour, but got this: “We really (expletived) that up. We were wrong and we’re sorry. We deserved what you wrote. See you around.” Then Ford’s chief of staff, Dick Cheney, left to find his boss.
Fast forward to 2003: Another American president, George W. Bush, spent almost two hours at Auschwitz and made sure his press secretary briefed reporters extensively on what Bush said and felt. (I’ve never been able to pin down for sure whether Bush got any previsit guidance from his vice president, Dick Cheney.)
Fast forward to 2009: Bush’s successor also did it right. President Barack Obama, in office just four months, toured the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and that camp’s most famous survivor, Elie Wiesel. Obama said his great-uncle, Charlie Payne, was among U.S. Army troops who liberated a Buchenwald sub-camp in 1945. (As Obama spoke, I thought about my father-in-law, Capt. George C. Morgan, who was part of the liberation of Buchenwald. He once had a photo of Buchenwald’s gaunt prisoners; I wondered if young Elie Wiesel was somewhere in the background.)
“To this day, there are those who insist the Holocaust never happened,” Obama said at Buchenwald. “This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.”
Sadly, yet again, we must tell each other: “Never again.”
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.