On 27 January, 2015, some 200 survivors gathered at Auschwitz in Poland to observe the 70th anniversary of its liberation. Auschwitz, the largest camp established by the Germans, comprised a concentration camp, extermination centre and auxiliary forced-labour camps. It has been described as “the site of unspeakable terror”.2 Over one million people, mostly Jews, perished at Auschwitz between 1941 and 1945.

“Auschwitz is not only the world’s biggest Jewish graveyard, it is also the primary symbol of the Holocaust, the biggest organised mass murder in human history,” World Jewish Congress CEO, Robert Singer, said of the extermination camp.3 At Auschwitz, death was organised on an industrial scale.

As the Soviet forces advanced toward Auschwitz in January, 1945, German SS guards hurriedly evacuated some 60,000 prisoners on foot to the west. Many prisoners perished from cold, starvation and fatigue on these death marches; those who fell behind or could not continue, were shot. About 7,000 sick and dying prisoners were found at Auschwitz when the Red Army entered the complex on 27 January, 1945.

The horrific scene that greeted the Russian liberators was beyond description, yet only a small report appeared in the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, early in February. The Soviet press generally identified all those who had suffered in the camp as “victims of fascism”; there was little emphasis on the fact that the majority of those murdered were Jews. The Russians were more intent on ensuring their control over the post-war fate of Poland than revealing to the world the scale of the Nazi destruction of the Jews.4

With the anniversary coming at a time of renewed concern by Jews in many countries in Europe, where anti-Semitic attacks have been on the rise, Auschwitz remains a powerful symbol. The Jewish population in Europe was decimated by the Holocaust and since that time, the number of European Jews has continued to decline. Renewed anti-Semitism on the continent has prompted Jewish leaders to talk of a new “exodus” from the region.

Scholars estimate that in 1939 there were 9.5 million Jews living in Europe but, by the end of World War Two, the Jewish population of Europe had been reduced to 3.8 million. About six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Since 1945, the Jewish population in Europe has steadily declined. In 1960, there were about 3.2 million Jews in Europe but, by 1991, the Jewish population had fallen to two million. Currently, there are about 1.4 million Jews in Europe, representing just ten percent of the world’s Jewish population, and 0.2% of Europe’s total population.5

In Eastern Europe, the decline has been even more marked. The once large and vibrant Jewish population has all but disappeared. Scholars estimate that there were 3.4 million Jews in the European portions of the Soviet Union in 1939, while today only about 310,000 remain. And in Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Eastern European countries that were outside the USSR, fewer than 100,000 Jews remain today, of a population of 4.7 million in 1939.

Most Jews who made their home in Eastern Europe perished in the Holocaust. With the establishment of Israel in 1948, many have moved to the Jewish state, while intermarriage and cultural assimilation have also been significant factors in the decline of European Jewry.

But a better future awaits the Jewish people when Christ returns. God is faithful to His promises and He will gather His people to the land of Israel from all countries of the world. For truly, “He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as a shepherd doth his flock” (Jer 31:10).

References:

  1. Sources: Seventieth Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. [United States Holocaust Memorial Museum]. [Online] URL: http://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-features/special-focus/liberation-of-auschwitz
    70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz, 27 January 2015, [World Jewish Congress]. [Online] URL: http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/events/497

    Caroline Wyatt, “Auschwitz message still resonates today”, BBC News, 27 January 2015. Last updated at 02:15. [Online] URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30980070

  2. 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz, 27 January 2015, [World Jewish Congress]. [Online] URL: http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/events/497
  3. Ibid.
  4. “Liberation of Auschwitz”, WW2History.com. [Online] URL: http://ww2history.com/key_moments/Holocaust/ Liberation_of_Auschwitz
  5. Population data in this and the following paragraphs are from: Michael Lipka, The continuing decline of Europe’s Jewish population. Pew Research Center 1615 L Street, NW, Suite 700 Washington, DC 20036, February 9, 2015. [Online] URL: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/09/europes-jewish-population/