Marian Turski: Auschwitz Memorial Speech | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves

Marian Turski: Auschwitz Memorial Speech

Holocaust survivor Marian Turski reflects on the dangers of bystanding in this speech excerpt.
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This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

reading copy


English — UK
  • Antisemitism

This is an excerpt from the speech by Holocaust survivor Marian Turski, which he gave at the memorial ceremony on 27 January 2020 in Auschwitz.

I shall not be telling you about my sufferings, about my two death marches, about how I experienced the end of the war, when I weighed just 32 kilos, verging on the edge of exhaustion and life itself. I shall not be telling you about the very worst experience, the tragedy of being separated from my nearest loved ones and sensing what awaited them after the selection. No, I shall not be speaking about this. I want to talk with the generation of my daughter, and the generation of my grandchildren about themselves.

I see that our gathering includes the President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen … [who once] used the phrase “Auschwitz didn’t appear from nowhere”. …

Of course it didn’t appear from nowhere. That might seem to be a trite observation, but it contains a deep, and very important conceptual abbreviation in order to be understood. Let us for one moment go back in our minds, in our imagination, to Berlin in the early 1930s. … And one day in the early 1930s a sign suddenly appears on the park benches saying: “Jews are forbidden to sit on these benches”. Some might say: that’s unpleasant, unfair, not OK, but after all there are so many benches nearby, so people can go and sit somewhere else, it’s no disaster.

A bit later the sign appeared at the swimming pool: “Jews are forbidden to enter the swimming pool”. Some people might again say: that’s unpleasant, but Berlin has so many places to swim … they can just go somewhere else.

And the sign with the order appears: “Jewish non-Aryan children are forbidden to play with German Aryan children”. They shall play by themselves. And then the sign appears: “Bread and food products will only be sold to Jews after 5 p.m.”. Well that’s a bit more difficult, because the choice is more limited then, but people can still go shopping after 5 p.m.

But be careful, be careful, we are already beginning to become accustomed to thinking that you can exclude someone, stigmatize someone, alienate someone. And slowly, step by step, day by day, that’s how people gradually become familiar with these things. Both the victims and the perpetrators and the witnesses, those we call bystanders, begin to become accustomed to the thoughts and ideas, that this minority that produced Einstein, Nelly Sachs, Heinrich Heine and the Mendelssohns is different, that they can be expelled from society, that they are foreign people, that they are people who spread germs, diseases and epidemics. That is terrible, and dangerous. That is the beginning of what can rapidly develop.

The rest follows in swift succession: the ban on employing Jews, travel prohibition … deportation to ghettos … From where most people are taken to Kulmhof on the River Ner, where they are murdered in trucks using the exhaust fumes, and the rest go to Auschwitz, where they are murdered in modern gas chambers, gassed by Zyklon B. And this is where it was proven, what the Austrian president said: “Auschwitz didn’t appear from nowhere”. Auschwitz crept up, step by step, came closer, until what happened, happened here.

My friend, the President of the International Auschwitz Committee Roman Kent … has formulated an Eleventh Commandment … . It says: “You should never, never be a bystander.”

And that is what I want to say to my daughter, to my grandchildren. To the peers of my daughter and my grandchildren, wherever they may be living: in Poland, in Israel, in America, Western Europe. It is very important. Don’t be complacent, whenever you see historical lies. Don’t be complacent, whenever you see the past being misused for current political purposes. Don’t be complacent, whenever any kind of minority is discriminated against. The essence of democracy lies in the rule of the majority. But democracy itself lies in the fact that the rights of minorities must be protected. Don’t be complacent, whenever any government violates already existing, common social contracts. Remain faithful to the Eleventh Commandment: Never be a bystander.

Because, if you become complacent, before you know it, some kind of Auschwitz will suddenly appear from nowhere, and befall you and your descendants.

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