The stories and the legacies of Holocaust survivors continue to resonate both at home and abroad.
With January 27 marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, over 300 survivors visited the former concentration camp in Southern Poland to commemorate the day when Soviet troops broke into the camp to liberate it from the Nazis in 1945.
The Holocaust, which began in 1933 when Hitler first came to power in Germany, saw the death of over 11 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish. Auschwitz was the largest and deadliest of the thousands of concentration camps scattered across Europe during World War II, with over 1.1 million prisoners dying in the camp’s gas chambers from 1941 until liberation.
This anniversary is a special one because it is unlikely that the survivors, the youngest of whom were young children in 1945 and are now well into their 70s, will be able to visit the site in such large numbers for the 80th anniversary.
Peter Klein, director of UBC’s School of Journalism, is the child of two Holocaust survivors. Several family members on his father’s side were sent to Auschwitz during World War II and never came back.
Klein, who launched the International Reporting Program for students at UBC, said that the celebration should serve as a stark reminder of the racial and religious intolerance that is still taking place around the world today.
“I think there’s a lot of resonance to what’s going on right now in Europe,” said Klein. “There’s a rising intolerance not just against Jews, but against Muslims, against Romas. There’s a whole wave of intolerance going on that’s quite disturbing.”
Klein also said that it is important to commemorate history and to regularly remember the atrocities that occurred in the past in order to ensure that they do not repeat themselves in different ways today and in the future.
“These are patterns that, unfortunately, often repeat themselves,” said Klein. “I think that as much as we can both expose what’s going on and discuss what’s going on openly, then that’s really what’s going to allow us to prevent it.”
Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus in UBC’s psychology department, dedicated his career to studying the resilience and psychological welfare of people who lived through the Holocaust and World War II.
According to Suedfeld, the stories of Holocaust survivors have been varied and diverse, but the common theme of resilience in the face of great adversity overarches their narratives.
“The Holocaust experience was very varied,” said Suedfeld. “Not everyone underwent certain kinds of terrible experiences, but because that’s where the media attention has been, we tend to forget that a lot of the survivors survived in other ways and in other places.”
Suedfeld also said that it is especially important for the accounts of the atrocities that took place during World War II to be passed down alongside the survival stories of people who, both throughout and after the war, drew upon their inner strength to continue their lives in meaningful ways.
"I think that many of [the survivors] had, during the Holocaust and since, some strong motivation, some reason to live, some reason to do well," said Suedfeld. "They had a very high need to achieve and to regain some of the self-respect that they may have lost when they were being persecuted."