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Polish President Andrzej Duda and Polish First Lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda lead official delegations at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Jan. 27, 2020.Omar Marques/Getty Images

Adam Hummel is a lawyer in Toronto

When I return to Canada from Poland, I will bring two things with me: a bottle of slivovitz (plum brandy, a gift from the Jewish community of Krakow) and some irremovable dirt on the soles of my shoes.

No matter how much I scrub this black mud, caked into my black leather soles, it remains. It met the bottom of my shoes outside the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where I attended a ceremony on Monday in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army in 1945.

The ceremony was attended by 3,000 people, including 200 Holocaust survivors and leaders from 50 countries. It ended with the survivors and world leaders defying the biting cold to go outside to light memorial candles. While they walked along the train tracks that run through the camp, I stepped outside to see what I could of Auschwitz at night.

As I made my way to the infamous fence, where the dignitaries paid tribute to the dead, I stepped through mud. Distant lights illuminated the landscape. From where I stood, behind barbed wire no longer electrified, I could make out the tops of barracks, the outlines of guard towers and the enormity of the apparatus that facilitated the murder of more than a million people.

The dirt that I bring back on my shoes from Auschwitz is stubborn. It won’t come off.

Perhaps that’s because it contains the DNA of my people. It may be that the very dirt coating my shoes today once clung to the feet of an inmate. It may have lain beneath the body of a fallen Jew, beaten by a Nazi guard for defying an order or too weak to hear it. It may contain the blood of a Jew shot dead for no reason. Or the ashes from crematoria where the corpses of innocent Jews were burned.

This mud is stubborn resistance explained; it carries the lifeblood of a stubborn, resilient people who value life, who refuse to die.

I was honoured to join the ceremony with Canada’s delegation as a member of the Jewish Diplomatic Corps of the World Jewish Congress and representative of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. A unique perspective comes from sitting behind 200 survivors at the infamous gates, where railway tracks ran largely one-way. So many entered, so few came out.

Some did, however, and I witnessed their brave return to this place of horror where they clung to life and where they now bear witness to the atrocities of 75 years ago.

Marian Turski, an Auschwitz survivor and Polish historian who spoke at the ceremony, reminded us that “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky.” Anti-Jewish measures of the 1930s changed the status quo gradually. What began with banning Jews from sitting in parks, fraternizing with non-Jews, working in certain occupations or living in certain neighbourhoods soon grew harsher.

When the Second World War began, these changes to Jewish life became extreme, culminating in an outright rejection of Jews continuing to live among others. The Holocaust resulted from years of incremental anti-Jewish laws. These measures, however, were imposed on a stubborn people, a people who refused to give up.

By the end of the Second World War, six million Jews had been murdered. In Auschwitz, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and Belzec, among other camps, and at innumerable mass graves throughout Europe, Jews were murdered simply for being Jews. Over two millennia, the scourge of anti-Semitism had tried to eliminate the Jewish people, but we had other plans.

When I am asked to declare at Canadian customs what I’m bringing back, I will declare my slivovitz. But I will also declare that I am returning with dirt on my shoes, soil that represents the pain, suffering and murder of a stubborn, resilient people, some of whom I witnessed return to the site of their suffering – and the destruction of their families – to declare that they will remember what was done to them. Next to them sat their offspring, generational testaments to their will to survive.

Neither the survivors nor next generations will forget what happened. We will watch for the warning signs that represent the shadow of Auschwitz. Because nothing falls from the sky.

And because to be stubborn means to remember. We will always remember, and we will learn from the lessons of the past.

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