On Jan. 27, 1945, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, discovering only 4,500 prisoners, including a few hundred children, still alive.
At Auschwitz, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered 1.1 million people — 90% of whom were Jews, as well as some tens of thousands of Poles, Roma, and Soviet POWs.
One statistic illustrates the grotesque efficiency and single-minded commitment of the Nazis to kill every Jew on earth. Despite the D-Day landings and the increasingly perilous situation for the German army on the eastern front, between May and July 1944, the Nazis murdered 12,000 Hungarian Jews per day.
The Nazis’ lust to exterminate the Jews and others deemed unworthy of life was prioritized over the defense of Germany itself.
Faced with such fanaticism, it took the combined efforts of the Allied armed forces at the cost of millions of lives to defeat Nazi Germany and end the Holocaust.
Seventy-five years later, the world marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, and the liberation of Europe with V-E Day this May.
But how many of us indeed remember?
A well-publicized 2018 survey sadly revealed that 41% of American adults cannot say what Auschwitz was. It is imperative that all of us, not just Jews, commit ourselves to push back against the tide of such ignorance.
Though the mid-20th century hatred of Jews assumed its most lethal form in death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau — and in the killings fields of the Einsatzgruppen, where over 2 million civilians, including 1.3 million Jews, were shot to death — we also remember that anti-Semitism infected our country.
Surveys of American public opinion in the 1930s and 1940s found that anti-Semitic attitudes were prevalent. For example, surveys taken between 1938 through 1941 revealed that between one-third to one-half of Americans believed that Jews had “too much power in the United States” and during the war that number rose to 56%. By June 1944, 43% of Americans said they would support a campaign against the Jews or would be sympathetic to one.
It is not surprising that numerous polls revealed strong opposition to admitting Jewish refugees, including children, to the United States. For example, in a poll taken just after the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms in Germany, 71% of Americans opposed allowing “a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live.” Similarly, in January 1939, 61% of Americans opposed the settlement of 10,000, mostly Jewish, refugee children.
The rest of the world, including Britain, which cut off Jewish immigration to the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland in Mandatory Palestine, held similar attitudes. Chaim Weizmann, later Israel’s first president, presciently lamented that the “world seemed to be divided into two parts — those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”
As noted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “[t]he U.S. Government learned almost immediately about the systematic killing of Jews as soon as it began in the Soviet Union in 1941. Throughout the war, however, the Allied governments prioritized defeating Nazism, not saving Jews.”
Nevertheless, grudgingly and incrementally, America emerged a better, more humane nation from the war.
Illustrative of this improved America is the story of the late Larry Tillemans of Minneota, Minn. Raised in a family of Eagle Scouts featured in “Boys Life” before the war, Tillemans and two of his brothers served in the U.S. military. Later, Tillemans served as a clerk stenographer at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal where Nazi war criminals were prosecuted.
Decades later, haunted by what we saw and heard, Tillemans took it upon himself to travel our state telling the story of the Holocaust “and the horrors of the camps” through his eyes — for whoever would listen, as the documentary “The Typist” captures. Tillemans estimated he gave 400 talks in schools, churches, prisons and civic groups to thousands of Minnesotans.
Tillemans was one of 326,000 Minnesotans who served in the military in World War II. More than 7,800 lost their lives.
Some of the veterans saw firsthand what Tillemans transcribed and reported. Minnesota soldiers from across the state participated in the liberation of the Ohrdruf, Mauthausen, Dachau, Buchenwald and Flossenburg concentration camps.
These searing and indelible experiences helped shape the American postwar world for the better, as the country belatedly began to address its endemic racism.
Veterans were a significant catalyst for change in the United States. For example, the editor of “Yank” — a World War II Army weekly — surveyed his readership about changes they would like to see in postwar America found a majority of GIs answered: “above everything else, the need for wiping out racial and religious discrimination.”
Addressing the contributions of African-American veterans, Lt. Col. John Boyd rightfully claimed that black war veterans “had a great impact on the [civil rights] movement … if it wasn’t for the black Soldiers who came back from World War II and the Korean War and lent their expertise to the cause, Dr. King and the other ministers would not have been able to effectively organize [the masses] as they did.”
On the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we honor not just the memory of the victims and the liberated, but also the liberators who risked their lives to save the world and because of those experiences returned to make America a more just and tolerant nation.
Steve Hunegs is executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.