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Marian Turski © Wojciech Grabowski/ Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau
Marian Turski © Wojciech Grabowski/ Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau  


75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

Marian Turski spoke about the eleventh commandment: his speech was heard worldwide

Around 200 Auschwitz survivors attended the memorial ceremony for the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz at the Memorial: their voices were at the centre of attention on this day. Presidents, prime ministers and crowned heads of state from many countries gathered to pay their respects to those who were murdered and to the survivors.

Speakers on behalf of the survivors were Bat-Sheva Dagan from Israel, Elsa Baker from Great Britain and Stanislaw Zalewski from Poland. They all spoke in remembrance of the persecution and suffering of the Jewish families, the Sinti and Roma, the Polish prisoners and all the other people who were tormented and murdered in Auschwitz. But they also described the present-day challenges caused by increasing anti-Semitic and right-wing extremist hatred throughout the world.

Marian Turski, a Jewish-Polish Auschwitz survivor from Warsaw and Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee, dedicated his words to the generation of his grandchildren and all young people: In his moving and worldwide quoted speech, he described the path that had led to Auschwitz, and concluded with the ‘Eleventh Commandment’, formulated by Roman Kent, the President of the International Auschwitz Committee: “You should never be a bystander.”


The speech by Marian Turski at the memorial ceremony on 27 January 2020 in Auschwitz

“Never be a bystander whenever a minority is discriminated against.”

Dear gathering, dear friends,

I am one of the remaining survivors, and one of the few who were in this place almost up to the last minute before liberation. On 18 January my so-called evacuation from Auschwitz concentration camp began. After six days it turned out to be a death march for more than half of my fellow prisoners. We formed a column of more than 600 people. In all probability I shall no longer be alive for the next anniversary. These are the natural laws of human life.

So please excuse me when what I have to say to you might be somewhat emotional. What I have to say is, above all, for my daughter and my granddaughter, who I thank for being here in this room, and for my grandson: I am concerned about the peers of my daughter and of my grandchildren. In other words about the new generation, especially the youngest, the very young, who are even younger than them.

When the war broke out, I was a teenager. My father had been a soldier and had suffered a serious bullet wound in the lung. That was a drama for our family. My mother originated from the Polish-Lithuanian-White Russian border area. The armies had moved in and out of there, they plundered, robbed, raped and burned down villages, so that nothing would be left for the troops that followed. So you can say that I knew first-hand from my father and my mother what war meant. Despite this, although the war lay just 20 to 25 years in the past, it appeared to me to be as far away as the Polish Uprisings in the 19th century or the French Revolution.

When I meet young people today, I realise that they must be a little tired of hearing about the subject after 75 years: both about the war as well as about the Holocaust, the Shoah, the genocide. I understand them. That’s why I am promising you, you young people, that I shall not be telling you about my sufferings, about my two death marches, about how I experienced the end of the war, when I weighed just 32 kilos, verging on the edge of exhaustion and life itself. I shall not be telling you about the very worst experience, the tragedy of being separated from my nearest loved ones and sensing what awaited them after the selection. No, I shall not be speaking about this. I want to talk with the generation of my daughter, and the generation of my grandchildren about themselves.

I see that our gathering includes the President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen. Do you remember, Mr President, when you invited myself and the Presidium of the International Auschwitz Committee to be your guests, and we spoke about those times? At one point you used the phrase “Auschwitz didn’t appear from nowhere”. One could say, as we say in Polish: was not an implicit matter of course.

Of course it didn’t appear from nowhere. That might seem to be a trite observation, but it contains a deep, and very important conceptual abbreviation in order to be understood. Let us for one moment go back in our minds, in our imagination, to Berlin in the early 1930s. We are almost in the city centre. The neighbourhood is called the Bayerisches Viertel, the Bavarian Quarter. Three underground rail stops from the Kurfürstendamm and Zoologischer Garten. Where the U-Bahn station is today there is a park. And one day in the early 1930s a sign suddenly appears on the park benches saying: “Jews are forbidden to sit on these benches”. Some might say: that’s unpleasant, unfair, not OK, but after all there are so many benches nearby, so people can go and sit somewhere else, it’s no disaster.

It was a quarter where representatives of the German intellectual elite of Jewish origin lived, including Albert Einstein, the Nobel Prize winner Nelly Sachs, and the industrialist, politician and foreign minister Walter Rathenau. A bit later the sign appeared at the swimming pool: “Jews are forbidden to enter the swimming pool”. Some people might again say: that’s unpleasant, but Berlin has so many places to swim, so many lakes, almost as many canals as Venice, they can just go somewhere else.

At the same time the sign suddenly appears: “Jews are forbidden to be members of German choral societies”. So what? If they want to sing or make music, they should meet up separately, and then they can sing. And the sign with the order appears: “Jewish non-Aryan children are forbidden to play with German Aryan children”. They shall play by themselves. And then the sign appears: “Bread and food products will only be sold to Jews after 5 p.m.”. Well that’s a bit more difficult, because the choice is more limited then, but people can still go shopping after 5 p.m.

But be careful, be careful, we are already beginning to become accustomed to thinking, that you can exclude someone, stigmatize someone, alienate someone. And slowly, step by step, day by day, that’s how people gradually become familiar with these things. Both the victims and the perpetrators and the witnesses, those we call bystanders, begin to become accustomed to the thoughts and ideas, that this minority that produced Einstein, Nelly Sachs, Heinrich Heine and the Mendelssohns is different, that they can be expelled from society, that they are foreign people, that they are people who spread germs, diseases and epidemics. That is terrible, and dangerous. That is the beginning of what can rapidly develop.

The rulers at that time were pursuing very clever policies, for instance by meeting the demands of the workers. May Day had never before been celebrated before in Germany on such a scale – now it will be done, if you please. On the work-free day they introduce “Strength through Joy”. It becomes an element in the workers’ holidays. They are able to overcome unemployment, and to play with national dignity: “Germans arise from the shame of Versailles. Win back your pride”. At the same time these rulers recognize that the people are slowly being overtaken by insensitivity, by complacency. They no longer respond to a sense of evil. And then the rulers are in a position to accelerate the process of evil even faster.

The rest follows in swift succession: the ban on employing Jews, travel prohibition. And this is quickly followed by deportation to ghettos: to Riga, to Kaunas, to my ghetto, the ghetto of Łódź – Litzmannstadt. >From where most people are taken to Kulmhof on the River Ner, where they are murdered in trucks using the exhaust fumes, and the rest go to Auschwitz, where they are murdered in modern gas chambers, gassed by Zyklon B. And this is where it was proven, what the Austrian president said: “Auschwitz didn’t appear from nowhere”. Auschwitz crept up, step by step, came closer, until what happened, happened here.

My daughter, my granddaughter, you who are their peers – maybe you haven’t heard of Primo Levi. Primo Levi was one of the most famous prisoners of this concentration camp. Primo Levi once used the following formulation: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” And that means, that it can happen everywhere on this Earth.

I would like to share just one personal experience with you: in 1965 I was on a scholarship in the United States, in America, and it was at the height of the struggle for human rights, civil rights, rights for the Afro-American population. I had the honour of taking part in the Selma to Montgomery March with Martin Luther King. And when they discovered that I had been in Auschwitz, the people asked me: “What do you think. Was something like that only possible in Germany? Or could it happen somewhere else as well?” And I said to them: “That can happen here too. When civil rights are violated, when the rights of minorities are not respected, when they are abolished. When justice is perverted as in Selma, then yes that can happen.” – “What can be done to prevent it?” – “You yourselves can prevent it,” I replied. “If you are prepared to defend your rights, your democratic order, by protecting the rights of minorities – then you can overcome it.”

We in Europe are mainly rooted in the Jewish-Christian religion. Both religious and non-religious people regard the Ten Commandments as their civilizational canon. My friend, the President of the International Auschwitz Committee Roman Kent, who gave a speech here at the last anniversary five years ago, could not come here today. He has formulated an Eleventh Commandment that embodies the experience of the Shoah, the Holocaust, the terrible epoch of contempt. It says: “You should never, never be a bystander.”

And that is what I want to say to my daughter, to my grandchildren. To the peers of my daughter and my grandchildren, wherever they may be living: in Poland, in Israel, in America, Western Europe. It is very important. Don’t be complacent, whenever you see historical lies. Don’t be complacent, whenever you see the past being misused for current political purposes. Don’t be complacent, whenever any kind of minority is discriminated against. The essence of democracy lies in the rule of the majority. But democracy itself lies in the fact that the rights of minorities must be protected. Don’t be complacent, whenever any government violates already existing, common social contracts. Remain faithful to the Eleventh Commandment: Never be a bystander.

Because, if you become complacent, before you know it, some kind of Auschwitz will suddenly appear from nowhere, and befall you and your descendants.