80th anniversary of deportation of the first Poles to KL Auschwitz – National Remembrance Day
14 June 1940 is considered the date when German Nazi Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp began its functioning. On that day, the Germans deported from the prison in Tarnów to the Auschwitz camp the group of 728 Poles. Among them were veterans of the September 1939 campaign, members of underground independence groups, high-school and university students, and a small group of Polish Jews. They received numbers 31 to 758.
Events commemorating the 80th anniversary of this event took place under the National Patronage of Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland as well as the Honorary Patronage of Prof. Piotr Gliński, Minister of Culture and National Heritage. Upon the decision of the Polish Sejm, 14 June is commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance of German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps Victims.
Due to the unprecedented circumstances of the state of epidemic threat caused by the coronavirus pandemic, events commemorating the anniversary had a different character than initially planned. Commemorative events on a mass scale were impossible to organize. Many of the scheduled events, in particular exhibitions, have been held online. They can be found on the special website: 14june.auschwitz.org. Symbolical commemoration took place at the Memorial.
Two former female prisoners of the Auschwitz camp, Lucyna Adamkiewicz and Barbara Wojnarowska-Gautier took part in the events commemorating the anniversary, together with the delegations of Polish authorities, headed by Andrzej Duda, President of the Republic of Poland.
Holy Mass was celebrated by Father Jan Maciejowski, vicar general of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, at Saint Maximilian Center in Harmęże, where the exhibition of works by Marian Kołodziej, prisoner from the first transport number 423, is presented under the title “Negatives of memory. Labyrinths”. “We are aware of the gravity of this place. We are aware of the evil which had taken place here. Therefore, let us pray that God forgives that there is still so little love in the world”, said Father Maciejowski welcoming those taking part in the Mass.
The homily was delivered by Father Piotr Cuber, superior of the Saint Maximilian Center. In his words he referred to Marian Kołodziej.
“In 1998, Kołodziej wrote the following words, recalling the first transport to Auschwitz: 'Fifty eight years ago, late in the afternoon on the scorching day of 14 June 1940, an enraged superhuman brutally kicked me out of the Tarnów wagon straight into the hell of Auschwitz. For five long years. I was dying here between the Soła and the Vistula river, in this malarial environment, in constant mud, I was decaying, exhausted by beating and backbreaking labour, starvation, diarrhoea, typhus, consumed by lice, subjected to pseudo medical experiments, terribly humiliated, stripped of my clothes, bathed in Lysol, deprived of my name and surname, now only as number 432 – I would report as ordered, each and every time'”, the Franciscan said.
“God, where are you? The question which must have been constantly asked here those times, appears today as well. As we know, after Auschwitz, a lot of people abandoned the faith, many would lose it. If there was God – they used to say, if God existed, he would not have been able to watch what had happened here calm, he must have reacted. As he remained silent and passive, he does not exist, or is not God”, Father Cuber said.
“And if he exists, how should he have reacted? Catch them by the hand? Strike with a lightning? Turn off the light at the audience and say: Kids, time to finish, you cannot play like this. And what about free will that we had been granted during creation in world’s early days? What about free will which is a gift, equally precious as dangerous and risky for God himself as well. Unfortunately, thanks to freedom, a human may say “no” not only to another human, but also to God himself”, he emphasized.
Director of the Memorial, Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, while saying thank you to the Franciscans for the Mass, said referring to the Sunday gospel that “remembrance is quite similar to faith: the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Let us ask the Lord of harvest to send his laborers also to the harvest of remembrance”.
Wreaths were laid under the board devoted to the first transport on the building of former Polish Tobacco Monopoly, in the vicinity of current Auschwitz Museum premises. This is where on 14 June 1940, the SS men placed the prisoners for the period of quarantine, and today, it is the seat of the Witold Pilecki University of Applied Sciences in Oświęcim. President Andrzej Duda also laid the wreath on historical railway tracks where 80 years ago, the train with the prisoners from Auschwitz stopped.
“It had been the beginning of this horrifying tragedy for all those who perished here: Poles who were brought here in the first transport, were the first prisoners of this terrifying place and perished there also the first, and then other nations followed – the Red Amy POWs, the Roma, but in particular Jews, the Jews from all over Europe, not only from Poland”, said Andrzej Duda.
„This is the land, one can say, soaked with blood and covered with the ashes of burnt bodies, the land which calls for remembrance, which also urges us never to forget, so that something like this never repeats, so that no man – if this word can even be used with reference to the perpetrators – ever tries, anywhere in the world, cause the other such unimaginable immensity of evil, suffering and cruelty”, the President emphasized.
Delegation led by President Andrzej Duda visited the Auschwitz Memorial as well. Polish national anthem was played in front of Block 11. Wreaths were laid under the Death Wall in the courtyard of Block 11 by the President of the Republic of Poland, Elżbieta Witek, Marshal of the Sejm, Prof. Piotr Gliński, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture and National Heritage as well as Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, Director of the Memorial.
“In memory of the visit on the National Day of Remembrance of German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps Victims; to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first mass transport of Poles to KL Auschwitz; paying tribute to the memory of the victims, incarcerated, murdered and tortured by the functionaries of Hitler’s Third Reich; with appreciation and gratitude for directors and staff of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim – the custodians and guardians of this place, which constitutes a shocking symbol of crime, terror and extermination; deeply convinced that the truth about what had happened here during the Second World War will remain a warning for the entire mankind forever. No more war, hatred, racism”, President Andrzej Duda wrote in the Museum memory book.
“This death factory had been constructed by the German for Poles. They were supposed to perish and they perished. The first transport included young people, also secondary school students. The world may not forget about it. We will remember forever”, wrote Elżbieta Witek, Marshal of the Sejm.
“On the 80th anniversary of the first transport of Polish Prisoners to Auschwitz, I pay homage to my compatriots who had become victims of cruel ideology, both in Auschwitz as well as in other German Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps. Their resistance and fight deserve the gratitude of the Polish Nation. Their suffering will never be forgotten. In honour of their memory!”, Minister Piotr Gliński wrote in the book.
“Not so long ago, on 27 January, we were commemorating the day of liberation of KL Auschwitz. It was probably the last big international event before the pandemic. These hard and difficult times will pass. I believe it. And when they do pass, we will assume a more reasonable attitude towards remembrance in order to understand great perspectives for the world of peace, cooperation, respect towards another human and supporting each other in difficult times. What can damage us to the core it is not even hatred, it is mere egotism and indifference. This is the lesson to be learnt from Auschwitz. This place needs to become even stronger our signpost in the creation of a better, safer and more human world”, said Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz Museum.
The President also visited the starvation cell in the basement of Block 11, where Father Maximilian Kolbe was murdered, as well as the room devoted to the fate of children in Auschwitz, which presents among others the photograph of Czesława Kwoka, a Polish girl murdered at the camp, deported to Auschwitz together with her mother Katarzyna during the action of pacification of the Zamość region by the occupant in December 1942.
What is more, in his special speech on the occasion of the anniversary, minister Piotr Gliński announced the creation of the New Polish Exhibition at the Auschwitz Memorial, to be financed from the funds of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage: “Advanced works are already carried out in order for the exhibition to be ready within the next three years. It will constitute a multidimensional, modern presentation, so important for spreading the knowledge and continuing commemoration activities and so important for the families of Polish victims, still bearing the trauma of their ancestors”.
Already before the anniversary, Memorial Archives published the updated list of prisoners transported on June 14th 1940 from Tarnów. According to the latest findings, out of 728 deported prisoners, 325 lived to see the end of the war, 292 perished and the fate of 111 remains unknown.