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Tuesday, 10 February 2015
Page: 373

Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (19:50): Two weeks, people around the world paused to commemorate an event that, more powerfully than any other, symbolises humanity's darkest chapter. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz was an occasion for world leaders, Holocaust survivors, representatives of all religious faiths and millions of ordinary citizens around the globe to reflect on the tragedy of the Holocaust, its lessons and the ultimate triumph of those who not only survived horror but then went on to rebuild their own lives and to build a better world.

The Auschwitz camp was the largest in a network of concentration camps established by the Nazi regime. It was constructed in its initial inception in 1940 and expanded on several occasions to the point where it could hold upwards of 150,000 people at any given time. The Auschwitz site, located around 60 kilometres west of Krakow in Poland, actually contained three distinct camps. It is the second of these, the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, that has become the most infamous. Estimates of the numbers that perished at Auschwitz vary, but even the most conservative estimates by historians put the number at well over one million, with some estimates ranging as high as four million. The vast majority of these were Jewish prisoners, executed in the camp's gas chambers on Nazi orders, though many also died through starvation, twisted medical and scientific experiments, disease and firing squads.

Initially intended as a forced labour camp, by 1942 the Nazis has concocted an even more insidious use for the facility, and it became the primary site for the Nazi's evil desire to eliminate European Jews altogether. Even today, the image of the rail track running into the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau is a chilling, haunting and distressing one to see. Even those who have not visited Auschwitz in person can nonetheless understand the horror that it has come to represent. As trains bearing Jewish prisoners arrived at the camp, selections would be carried out by Nazi officials on the platform. The ill, the elderly, pregnant women and children would be classified as unfit for labour and immediately sent to the gas chambers. This accounted for around 75 per cent of each new transport. These victims were never officially entered in camp records; they were not assigned prisoner numbers or registered in any other way. Thus, it is impossible to know precisely how many perished in the horror of Auschwitz.

Those not targeted for immediate execution were subjected to degradation of the worst kind: tattooed with a prisoner number, stripped and deloused, shaved, and clothed in either prison style uniforms or, as numbers swelled, clothing taken from those who had already perished in the gas chambers. Inmates were housed in the most primitive of conditions, forced to share tiers of bunk beds that were not equipped with mattresses. Water supply was limited to one tap per building, through which water would flow for only around one hour per day. There was little food provided and no soap, which did nothing to prevent the spread of diseases such as dysentery, which, in the absence of medicine and medical professionals, claimed many victims within the camp.

A lack of hygiene was far from the only indignity facing those housed at Auschwitz: beatings at the hands of Nazi guards were commonplace, as was the humiliation of running or standing punishments where inmates were stripped naked and forced to run on the spot or stand still for hours at a time in extreme temperatures. There were various forms of electroshock punishment, public floggings and hangings, or the possibility of a cruel, slow death through being selected as the subject of one of the Nazi's heinous medical experiments. Naturally, this existence would weaken many to the point where they were no longer capable of physical work, at which point they, too, would be taken to the gas chamber.

The gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau had the capacity to kill approximately 6,000 people per day—a capacity that was, more often than not, fully unitised by Nazis. The pace of executions at Auschwitz steadily increased, peaking from May to November 1944, as the increasingly desperate Nazi regime made a last-ditch attempt to realise its twisted vision. When the Auschwitz death camp was finally liberated on 27 January 1945, there remained only around 7,500 prisoners and the bodies of around another 600. Yet, despite the attempts of fleeing Nazi officials to hide what had really gone on, liberating troops quickly found evidence that pointed to murder on a massive scale—uncovering 370,000 men's suits, 837,000 women's garments and 7.7 tonnes of human hair stored at the camp.

Of the millions who passed through the gates of Auschwitz, it is estimated that only around 200,000 survived. The stories of survivors, not only of the camp at Auschwitz but of the Holocaust more broadly, are of critical importance if we are to fully understand human history's darkest hour. What is perhaps most extraordinary is the extent to which so many not only survived the horror but went on to lead productive and full lives in spite of the trauma they endured. I think particularly here of people such as the late Kurt Ehrenfeld of Western Australia, who passed away in July last year. I knew Mr Ehrenfeld and I know his children. He was transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp at the age of just 12, along with his mother and sister. The memorial program put together by the Ehrenfeld family contains the story:

The SS Officer pointed to me and asked my father: "Is he a strong boy?"

"No, he's not," said my father, "he's weak". So my father was sent in one direction and my mother, sister and me in another. That was the last I ever saw of my father.

Kurt Ehrenfeld later learnt that his father, Oskar, perished in the Nazi camp at Bergen-Belsen. One can hardly begin to imagine the effect that such a traumatic experience would have on a child so young. Yet Kurt Ehrenfeld, like so many others, found a new life in Australia, which he fully embraced, making a major contribution to significant engineering projects in WA, including the Ord River dam project, and raising his own seven children with his wife, Norma.

Of course, while it was the European Jews who were overwhelmingly the target and victims of the Nazis' reign of terror, others perished in their camps, including those who stood up for Jewish people, resistance fighters, the physically disabled, those with intellectual disabilities, gay people and those opposed to the Nazis politically.

In acknowledging the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, one thing came through very strongly at the commemorative services here in Australia and around the world. That was: to never forget. It was former US President Harry Truman who said in the days following the end of the Second World War:

It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than it is to kill the ideas which gave them birth and strength.

Given some of the anti-Semitic outbursts and attacks we have witnessed in Europe in just the last month, President Truman's words resonate with a tragic prescience. In the same week that the world was shocked by the violent assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there was a subsequent attack carried out by an Islamist militant on a kosher supermarket in the eastern suburbs of that same city. This attack claimed the lives of four Jewish hostages and terrorised another 15 before police ultimately killed the perpetrator. It was a chilling reminder that, for all the lessons the Holocaust has taught us, anti-Semitism has not been defeated.

Anti-Semitic attacks in Europe are being reported with an alarming frequency and the world must remain vigilant—as it must against all forms of discrimination. Yet even in the face of tragedy, humanity's best aspects can shine through. The man hailed as the hero of the Paris supermarket attack, 24-year-old Lassana Bathily, is a practising Muslim, whose words and deeds showed that those of different religions are bound by a common concern for humanity. He said:

Yes, I helped Jews get out. We're brothers. It's not that we're Jewish or Christian or Muslims, we're all in the same boat. You help so you can get through this attack.

I think all of us hope for a world in which our instinctive reaction is always to stand up and defend others, to oppose violence based on differences of religious belief, political opinion, sexual preference, race or gender. It is more important to focus on our shared commitment to preserving the freedom and dignity of every individual.

Scratched into the walls of the concentration camp at Auschwitz at the height of the horror were these brief lines, which best embody the hope that beats in every human heart even in our darkest times:

I believe in the sun even when it's not shining.

I believe in love even when I don't feel it.

I believe in God even when He is silent.