Commissioner for Human Rights

International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust


The theme of the Holocaust remembrance and education activities this year is “Holocaust Remembrance: Demand and Defend Your Human Rights”. This theme encourages youth to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust, act against discrimination and defend democratic values in their communities, at a time when the spread of Neo-Nazism and hate groups fuels the rising antisemitism and other forms of hatred around the world. The theme highlights the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The annual Holocaust memorial ceremony was held on 28th January 2019 and was hosted by Ms. Alison Smale, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications.

Mr. Marian Turski, Chair of the Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Deputy Chair of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland, journalist and member of the Social Council at the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, shared his testimony as a survivor of the Holocaust.

Marian Turski’s speech:

Friends, In Auschwitz I had no name, in Auschwitz I had nothing, but a number B-9408 tattooed on. I was in Auschwitz till the last day, till the so called evacuation, which was as a matter of fact the death march to Buchenwald. Then I was privileged with the second death march form Buchenwald to Theresienstadt, where I was liberated on the same day with Inge Auerbacher.

When I meet people very often and they ask a question: tell us please what was the worse in Auschwitz? What was the worse when you were there? They expect, probably you too, they expect a response: hunger. Yes, in a way you are right. People, if they are not survivors of the Holodomor in Ukraine, if they don’t live in Sudan, or Yemen, if they get a daily portion of nourishment they cannot imagine what hunger is. To say it shortly - imagine that a spectre of a potato, a spectre of a spoon of soup is before your eyes, a bite of bread is before your eyes, always.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say this was the worse. So what was the worse? The winter of 1944- 1945 was horrible. Extraordinary Cold. Minus 20 degrees centigrade. We were in our inmate uniforms. I cut out underwear from a cement bag, and the German supervisor noticed at once. He started shouting, ‘du hast Deutsche gshtolen!’ words that mean ‘you stole German property!” And he gave me such a savage beating.

So was cold the worse? No. What? Not cold, not hunger? Maybe the so called living conditions? We were settled in barracks. It was 1,000 1,100 people. People jammed in a bunk: 5, 6, 7 people. You start thinking whether it was better to be on a top or bottom bunk. Well of course it’s best to be on the top bunk … Why? The bladders of the prisoners couldn’t hold. And they would leak. It was better to be up than down. But on the other hand if there was a sudden roll-call and they did it very often, and you were very weak and you had to climb to the top bunk... And it was very dangerous because you had to speed up to the roll-call. You could be battered almost to death for being slow.

And it was not the worse. So what was the worse? Maybe louse? This was a curse. I admit, in the so called stammlager in Auschwitz and Buchenwald  I don’t remember louse. However, we were very often put in the so called commandos- special units to clean up an old refinery next to Auschwitz, or to clean up a coal mine near Buchenwald. Everything was destroyed, whole facilities were bombed. And there was no possibility to wash. By the way, hundreds, thousands of louse were so horrible during death march. As a matter of fact a louse infected me at my last death march and I ended the war with typhus.

But still I wouldn’t say this was the worse. The worst was humiliation. Humiliation. If you were Jewish, and precisely because you were Jewish, you were treated not like a human being, you were treated like a louse, like a bedbug, like a cockroach. And what decent people do with cockroach, with louse, with bedbug? They stamp on, they crush, they suffocate, they kill, they annihilate.

Dear Friends, very often I’m asked today: you who survived the hell, what did you learn from your experience? What would you like to tell us, young people today? If I had to choose form among all the lessons and all the words one or two, I would choose the following: empathy, compassion. This is the most important in life.

Dear Friends, we are commemorating today the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. And this is natural that we use the phrase “never more Auschwitz” “never again Auschwitz”. But if we want this call to be not only a mere slogan, an empty phrase we must, we should maybe learn to understand other people, sometimes strangers, people who are different from us. This is the only thing I could suggest you as a survivor.

Two days ago I was honoured to be invited by rabbi Arthur Schneier to a Park East synagogue together with a great number of UN diplomats. And his very touching speech... Rabbi Schneier quoted the biblical sentence: and you should love your neighbour, your fellowmen like yourself. I wouldn’t go so far Rabbi Schneier. I think before we start with love we should start with something else. We should start with reducing, with cutting, with lessening of hatred, animosity, hostility. We must do it. If not, who will protect our children, our grandchildren from a world disaster, from a world catastrophe?