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Let Us Never Forget the Victims of Nazi Persecution

26/01/2015 17:46 GMT | Updated 28/03/2015 09:59 GMT

I am not a historian. I am not an expert on the Holocaust or Polish-Jewish relations. But I know much about suffering. I have been to Yad Vashem three times, I have visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Imperial War Museum and, more importantly, I have been to Auschwitz more than 15 times. I have met survivors in Warsaw, London, Tel Aviv and New York. I know their stories and I can feel their suffering, pain and a sense of loss. They lost their happy childhoods, their families, their precious belongings, their sense of security; but they never lost their hope, dignity and bravery. Despite numerous scars in their memories, they never lost their ability to love and forgive.

On 27 January, 2015, during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, the eyes of the world will be focused on the survivors who will stand in front of the Death Gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Politicians will remain silent. We will pay tribute to those who went through hell, but survived, and we can only bow our heads in their presence.

Auschwitz was not "a Polish death camp" - such a phrase is wrong and factually misleading, as it suggests that this camp was inherently Polish or run by the Poles. On the contrary, there were no Polish concentration camps during World War II, only the concentration camps set up and administered by Nazi Germany in the Reich and occupied Europe, including occupied Poland.

This is an important distinction to make; otherwise one runs the risk of distorting the historical truth about some of the most horrific crimes perpetrated in the 20th Century, or indeed of wrongly apportioning the blame. This false description may result in a distortion of the truth behind those events, potentially confusing the fate of victims with that of culprits and bystanders. It is also unacceptable to use the word "Polish" as a geographical descriptor - for two reasons, because there was no Polish state at the time the camps existed (the territory on which the camps were located had been invaded and remained occupied by Nazi Germany throughout the entirety of the camps' operation) and because it is simply absurd - in such a case why not write about "a Cuban prison of Guantanamo" or about "a French terrorist attack". To further highlight the sensitivity of this subject, on 27th June 2007, the World Heritage Committee of Unesco changed the name of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp heritage site to: "the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi German concentration and extermination camp 1940-1945".

A lot of Poles knew about the atrocities in Auschwitz and did not remain silent. Let me just mention Jan Karski, whose true name was Jan Kozielewski. He was an emissary of the Polish Underground State to the Polish government-in-exile and to Western governments. Karski's major task was to convey information about the fate of the Jews in German-occupied Poland in order to stop their systematic annihilation. After the German and Soviet invasions of Poland in September 1939, Karski joined the Polish resistance movement, the first and largest resistance movement in Europe. In summer 1942, Karski was selected by the Polish Underground State, to perform a secret mission to inform the Government-in-Exile, then based in London, about Nazi German atrocities in occupied Poland. To give authentic testimony, Karski met with Jewish leaders and was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto. He also entered the transit camp at Izbica Lubelska disguised as a guard. In London Karski met not only with the Polish political leadership but also with Secretary of State Anthony Eden. He was subsequently sent on a mission to the USA, where he spoke with President Roosevelt. Unfortunately, Karski's message did not lead to an Allied intervention and the mission of the Polish Underground State to save Polish Jews failed.

The Holocaust was a genocide, a systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. As President Shimon Peres has said, it was "the greatest darkness that mankind has known". Jews were abandoned by humanity. But there were human beings who were sensitive to this tragedy - non-Jews, Christians, called the "Righteous Gentiles", whose selfless acts of heroism will always be remembered. Poles who concealed and aided hundreds of thousands of their Jewish neighbours, which was punishable by death - people like Irena Sendler, a remarkable woman who defied the Nazis and saved 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Polish citizens have the world's highest count of individuals (26% of those awarded with the title) who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem as non-Jews who saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust. Let us never forget the six million Jews who died, and all the other victims of Nazi persecution.

As John Paul II said once: "We wish to remember. But we wish to remember for a purpose, namely to ensure that never again will evil prevail, as it did for the millions of innocent victims of Nazism".