Oksana Bashuk Hepburn: 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz: Some Thoughts

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The Sarasota Herald-Tribune Jan 29/05
Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, second generation Holocaust survivor

This week the world is celebrating the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau and the inauguration of Ukraine's President. There is an interesting link between the two, and with the inaugural address by President George Bush.

In Nazi-occupied Europe, Ukraine lost more of its population than any other country; about 20 million. And just some ten years earlier, 10 million were starved by the Soviet Communism's man-made hunger. Yet the world has not recognized these holocausts. This callousness was somewhat mitigated this week when the President of the second largest county in Europe, a son of an Auschwitz survivor, was invited to the marking of its liberation some 60 years ago.

Andrij, President of Ukraine Victor Yuschenko's father, and my father were katsetnyky, prisoners in Auschwitz. He was a Red Army captive; mine was imprisoned, among many, for having the temerity to proclaim an independent Ukraine in June, 1941 in Lviv, then occupied by the Germans. No Western power supported this nascent attempt at freedom and it ended badly for all opponents of the Nazi regime.

Perhaps our fathers, while prisoners in Auschwitz, shared the same lice-infested block; perhaps they slave-labored in the work gangs together, I don't know. I do know this: both witnessed the atrocities of state authority gone mad with unchecked power.

When new katsetnyky arrived, he would tell me as a child, they had to run the gauntlet of hundreds of other prisoners beating them with wooden sticks; their baptism. Those who fell were dragged away and kicked by the guards -- stand up or die! If the beatings by prisoners in the line-up weren't convincing, they were beaten in turn. The slightest protest was suppressed by beatings, shooting or hosing down with cold water. In winter they were left outdoors to freeze. He told me how the katsetnyky stood motionless for hours on end, in good weather or bad, until a missing one was found, usually dead, or shortly to be shot as a warning to others. How often? Often, much, much too often, he would say.

There were books in our house, after the War, showing Ukrainian Auschwitz prisoners throwing themselves in desperation on barbed wires, attempting escape; of shot ones hanging limp on the barded fences; of guard dogs tearing at the limbs of escaping ones.

But why did they even try?

Because freedom is a sacred need that cannot be suppressed.

During the long Cold War my father used to say that all of Ukraine was a concentration camp: Ukraine is an Auschwitz. Somewhere, at this time, I was studying in political science that for a long time United States resisted involvement in the affairs of other states; the Monroe Doctrine. If isolationism had prevailed, World War II might not have been won and places like Auschwitz not liberated.

I was an observer for the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe last November 21 in Kyiv, witnessing the blatant falsification of the second round of elections when Mr.Yuschenko called for the people to head for the streets to defend their freedom.

They came. In the cold weather, in the freezing rain, in the pelting snow the people defended their freedom. They stood guard while they held their breath: would President Putin give Russia's special forces stationed outside Kyiv the order to shoot? Would the secret service provoke violence and start beating people with wooden batons? Would the military tanks crush the freedom-fighters of the Tent City?

Ukrainians understand human annihilation, an evil used over and over again by power crazed state authorities who callously obliterated 10 million and then another 20 million in order to take away Ukraine's freedom and break its aspirations for it. Both occupying forces, Communists and Nazi, were equally evil. And, hallelujah, both failed.

Most recently, evil failed in Ukraine once again because the son of an Auschwitz survivor created the Orange Revolution; because the people stood their ground; because democratic countries of Europe, Canada and the United States were shocked that Russia would proclaim a fraud as victor; because freedom is a sacred need that cannot be suppressed.

In his inaugural speech President Bush indicated that by acting in the great liberation tradition of this country tens of millions have achieved their freedom. This was so in Europe after the War; it was so in Auschwitz and, most recently, in Ukraine.

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn is writing a novel about three generations of women living in the Auschwitz to Ukraine's Orange Revolution era on both sides of the Atlantic.