In October 2019, I visited Poland with my father and brother. We wanted to learn more about what happened to our relatives who perished in the Holocaust.
I have read many books about the Holocaust. I have watched countless documentaries, and I have even met numerous Holocaust survivors. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw at Auschwitz.
This death camp was liberated by the Soviet military on January 27, 1945. From 1940 to 1945, 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz, with 90% of those people being Jews. Reading a statistic like that is one thing, but visiting the scene of this genocide is quite another.
I walked through the gas chambers. I saw many empty canisters of Zyklon B. I saw the countless little shoes of children, which were often executed upon arrival since they could not first be used for labor. The Nazis killed over 1 million Jewish children, including newborns.
Of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, half of the them were from Poland. When we arrived in Poland, we learned a lot about my family.
My grandmother, Bella, was born in the small town of Kaluszyn. At the beginning World War II, Kaluszyn's Jewish population stood at 5,200, about 60% of the town's total.
When the Nazis came, they killed hundreds of people in the initial attack. After they captured the town, they carried out mass executions and eventually sent the remaining Jews to Treblinka.
Over 700,000 Jews died at Treblinka. The camp was second only to Auschwitz in the number of deaths.
Walking through Kaluszyn, we saw a monument that was erected to honor the Jews from this town. This was necessary since the Nazis had managed to destroy every trace of Jewish culture and history from the area. They not only destroyed the synagogues but even razed the Jewish cemetery and all its grave markers.
My grandmother left Poland a few years before the Nazi invasion and ended up living in the Soviet Union. She left behind a younger sister, Laja, and her grandmother Malka. My grandmother never knew what happened to her family, despite years of trying to find out.
Through newly digitized records, we recently learned that my great-great-grandmother Malka died in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941. We also found some records relating to my grandmother's sister, Laja, as the Nazi occupying government documented the healthcare personnel that worked and lived inside the Warsaw Ghetto. We also found a reference to her work in the papers of author and children's advocate Janusz Korczak, who ran a famed orphanage for Jews. Despite this new information, her ultimate fate cannot — and will never — be confirmed.
We do know that Korczak encountered Laja when she was working at an affiliated nearby orphanage in the early months of 1942. Korczak, some of his orphanage staff, and approximately 190 orphans were sent to their deaths in Treblinka in August 1942. It's possible that she might have been among them. We will never know.
The greater mystery to me is how we allowed the Holocaust to fade from the consciousness of millennials. It was reported in 2018 that two-thirds of American millennials were unfamiliar with Auschwitz, and that 22% of them had never even heard of the Holocaust. We should not forget the victims of Auschwitz any more than we should forget what the boys of Normandy did.
My parents were able to immigrate to America from the Soviet Union in part because of then-Congressman Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who visited Buchenwald only 11 days after General Patton's Third Army liberated the death camp. As he reflected on the visit, Jackson said: "How easily it could have happened to us if their program of world conquest had reached our shores."
From visiting these camps, he committed his life to advancing human rights. He also never forgot that a strong national defense was necessary to keep America free.
When Scoop Jackson later became a U.S. Senator, he helped free over 1.5 million Jews from the clutches of the Soviet Union through the Jackson-Vanik amendment. As a lifelong Republican, Scoop Jackson will always be one of my favorite Democrats.
When President Ronald Reagan visited Omaha Beach on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, he told the World War II veterans in attendance that "We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free." Those words must ring just as true today.
Robert Zapesochny is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on foreign affairs, national security and presidential history. His work has appeared in a range of publications, including The American Spectator, the Washington Times, and The American Conservative. For several years Robert worked closely with Peter Hannaford, a senior aide to Ronald Reagan, as the primary researcher on four books and numerous columns. Robert has also worked on multiple presidential, national and statewide campaigns, including as a field office staffer for the Bush-Cheney campaign. Due to his own Russian-Jewish heritage, Robert has a keen interest in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations. In 2017 he was the co-organizer of an effort that erected commemorative statue of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. Robert graduated with a major in Political Science from the University at Buffalo, and received his Master’s in Public Administration, with a focus in healthcare, from the State University of New York College at Brockport. When he’s not writing, Robert works for a medical research company in Rochester, New York. Read Robert Zapeochny's Reports — More Here.
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