"Arbeit Macht Frei." - That slogan met me, over 60 years ago, as I walked through the gates of hell at Auschwitz. It means: "Work makes you free."
The truth is, millions of people died at Auschwitz, finding freedom
only through Death.
I was just a teenager in Ukraine when the war started. The Soviets came, declaring they had come to liberate us. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Poles and Jews were arrested. They disappeared into Stalin's Gulag.
Some were taken to a place called Bykivnia, on the outskirts of Kyiv. It became a huge and secret government killing field and burial zone. The late Pope John-Paul II paid tribute to the victims of Stalinism there on 24 June 2001. He knew that many millions of Ukrainians were victims of the NKVD, SMERSH and later the KGB - men, women and children slaughtered only because Ukrainians dared to want to be free. Several execution centers were set up in place like Vynnitsia, the Kyiv Lukianiv Cemetary and others.
Hitler finally turned on Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union on 21 June 1941. Now it was Nazis who said they'd come to free us, from Soviet tyranny. The truth is, they enslaved and murdered millions of Ukrainians. I became a commodity, trapped and numbered, one of the millions of helots they intended to use until I was spent, after which I would be discarded. I still have my number. It's tattooed on my forearm, No. 154754. I was, in some ways will always be, that number. Every day I am reminded of Auschwitz.
Of course, we resisted. Ukraine's nationalist partisans organized an anti-Nazi and, later, anti-Soviet insurgency that continued an armed struggle against foreign occupation well into the 1950s.
I was arrested because I was a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the underground that lead the national liberation movement. The Nazis liquidated many OUN members, many of whom were interned in the concentration camps, alongside Jews, Poles, Russians, in fact among men and women of every nationality found in Nazi occupied Europe. We were all equal then, and we should be equally remembered now.
And yet today there are some who want to whitewash the Soviet terror, the crimes of Lenin and Stalin, and who are now trying to label us as collaborators. They want the world to forget that on the day the gates into Auschwitz opened, in August 1940, the Soviets were on Hitler's side.
Where I was during the war is something I can demonstrate just by rolling up my sleeve. My number speaks for itself. Where were those who now wish to dismiss the crimes of Stalinism, those in Russia who seek to claim the honor of defeating Hitler's hordes but shy away from recognizing how the dishonor of their country's collaboration with the Nazis resonates, to this very day?
In a few days, politicians will gather in Moscow to acknowledge the defeat of Nazi Germany. The end of the Second World War should indeed be solemnly commemorated. I don't deny that millions fought and died in the ranks of the Red Army, resisting Nazi aggression. I also remember that no other nation lost as many of its people as Ukraine did in Nazi occupied Europe.
In the 60 years since my release from Auschwitz, I know the truth is a force that heals, forgives and reconciles. The truth is that both the Nazis and the Soviets slaughtered innocents in the millions.
The Russian Federation, the legal successor state to the Soviet Union, has not renounced its participation in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 and publicly apologize for the terror they unleashed on the captive nations. Germany has. Why hasn't the Russian Federation?
As a Ukrainian nationalist, a Holocaust survivor, and as a believer in Christ, I also remember John the Apostle's injunction: "And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." In order to build a future on freedom's foundation, leaders of the world must acknowledge the truth.