The Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated 70 years ago on Jan. 27, 1945. Liberating the concentration camps halted the near-annihilation of the Jewish people.
On Wednesday, Fort Stewart soldiers remembered the 6 million Jews murdered in those death camps. Savannah resident Melinda Stein, who lost several members of her family in the Holocaust, was the keynote speaker for the Holocaust Days of Remembrance Observance, which begins Sunday and runs through April 19.
Stein’s maternal and paternal grandparents were murdered in the Auschwitz and Chelmno concentration camps. Her parents survived the camps and met shortly before World War II ended. They came to the United States from Poland in 1949. Stein has one older brother. Her mother died young, only 43, when Stein was 11 years old.
The New York native has lectured and taught about the Holocaust throughout Coastal Georgia for 30 years. She called the remarks she gave Wednesday, “Learning from the Holocaust: Choosing to Act.”
“My family on both sides were Polish, going back about 800 years,” Stein said. “When the Nazis came in — they invaded — they took Jewish people like my father and my mother and their families into ghettos. From there, they sent them to different places. My father’s mother and father were sent to Auschwitz.
The elderly and the children went first. My father was able to get away, and he fought the Nazis with a small group of men during the war.
“My mother was from a large city in northern Poland,” she continued. “(Her) mother and father and two older sons were sent to another death camp. My mother and her sister were sent to a slave-labor camp in the heart of Germany to manufacture bullets for the German war effort. … (My parents) met in what was called a ‘displaced persons camp,’ which was for people who survived the terrible experiences and needed a place to recover.”
Stein said her being there was a miracle. Only weeks before her camp was liberated, her mother had been reassigned to a part of the plant that involved handling toxic materials used in bullet manufacturing. She and her sister had been caught sabotaging the bullets they were making. Most of those sent to this section died within six weeks. Had her camp been liberated a few weeks later, her mother would have died, and Stein never would have been born.
Had the war lasted another year, the Nazis might have completed their “Final Solution,” and Adolf Hitler would have achieved something he had said in a 1938 speech — that Germany’s No. 1 problem would not end until there wasn’t one living Jewish child.
Part of the ceremony included lighting seven candles, each of which represented a particular group of people whose lives were permanently scarred by the Holocaust. There was also a tribute to those who had resisted the Nazis, including Hannah Szenes, a Hungarian Jewish woman who joined the British Army so she could fight Nazis. She was captured and subsequently executed.
Stein talked about a student group at the University of Munich, called the White Rose Society, which spoke out against what was being done to Jews. Their leaders were murdered and members arrested, she said.
She said it’s not enough just to remember the Holocaust. People today need to watch for the warning signs her parents’ generation missed in the late 1930s, including hate speech and social isolation of those looked down upon by society.
She encouraged audience members to speak out against ethnic, racial and religious jokes by saying, “I don’t think that’s funny.”
Stein concluded her remarks by noting she had always heard there were 2,000-3,000 death camps operating from 1938-1945. She recently learned that a new study determined there were as many as 42,500 death camps in Nazi-occupied Europe.
She said it was impossible for that many camps to exist without the people living near them knowing what was going on. To prevent another holocaust, people have to be willing to pay attention, speak up and speak out against potential state-sponsored terrorism, she said.