01. June 2023

An Ambassador of Remembrance

Polish contemporary witness Stanisław Zalewski visited Austria on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps Mauthausen and Gusen.

In early May 2023, the now 97-year-old Polish contemporary witness Stanisław Zalewski visited Austria. He was the only former prisoner to take part in the commemorative events at the Gusen concentration camp memorial site. His touching words at the commemoration ceremony against violence and racism in memory of the victims of National Socialism in the Austrian Parliament and the warm reception by the Mayor of Vienna, Michael Ludwig, on the anniversary of the liberation of the Gusen concentration camp remain unforgettable.

Stanisław Zalewski, born on October 1, 1925 in Sucha Wola/Poland, experienced the invasion of Poland by the Wehrmacht and the outbreak of World War II as a 14-year-old. In the following years he had contact with various resistance groups. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo. He was then sent first to the notorious Pawiak prison, then to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, from there to the Mauthausen concentration camp and finally to the Gusen I and Gusen II concentration camps, where he was used as a forced laborer in the Messerschmitt armaments factory and the Bergkristall commando until his liberation.

He was imprisoned in the concentration camps for a total of 545 days. After the Nazi concentration camp Gusen east of Linz was liberated by the U.S. Army on May 5, 1945, Zalewski's return home took another 78 days – via Nuremberg as part of the American Army. Arriving in Warsaw, Zalewski saw ruins and learned that his mother and brother had perished in the war. After the war, Stanisław Zalewski started a family, became a graduate engineer in mechanical vehicles, and traveled the world with his wife.

He is still an active chairman of the Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners of Hitler's Prisons and Concentration Camps and vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee. As an activist and contemporary witness, Zalewski has been working tirelessly for years to ensure that the former concentration camp site in Gusen becomes a dignified place of remembrance. Thus, on May 4, the eve of the 78th anniversary of the liberation by the U.S. Army, he emphasized at the commemoration organized by the Mauthausen Concentration Camp Memorial: "I wish that this memorial becomes resistant to the winds of history, that is, to socio-political changes taking place all over the world. And that all present and future nations and generations may understand this place."

The commemoration ceremony at the former Gusen roll call site took place in the presence of the federal government and with the participation of numerous national and international victims' organizations and memorial initiatives involved in the participation process for the further development of the Gusen concentration camp memorial site. Thus, standing side by side with Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer, the President of the National Council, Wolfgang Sobotka, and several federal ministers were Guy Dockendorf, Chairman of the International Mauthausen Committee, Dani Dayan, Chairman of the International Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in Israel, Bishop Manfred Scheuer, Oskar Deutsch, President of the Jewish Community, Christian Aufreiter, Mayor of Langenstein, Martha Gammer, Memorial Service Committee Gusen, Ulrike Springer, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Klippl, Chairman of the Cultural Association of Austrian Roma, and Dominic Floh, one of the young people who contributed their voices to the participation process.

"It is now up to all of us to make Gusen a place that remembers its history and, at the same time, where democracy is strengthened for the future and always renegotiated. The Republic of Austria will continue to assume its responsibility in this process," Chancellor Karl Nehammer assured.

The future of commemoration and the further development of the culture of remembrance were the focus of this year's commemoration ceremony against violence and racism in memory of the victims of National Socialism in Parliament last Friday. The director of the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial, Barbara Glück, reported on the challenges of the participation process at the Gusen memorial. The crucial point was to get people to approach and talk to each other about their ideas, expectations, but also about their reservations with regard to the planned new memorial and the future commemoration, said Barbara Glück. At the end of the memorial event, which was broadcast live by ORF 2, one of the last survivors of the Gusen concentration camp, Stanisław Zalewski, took the floor. He recalled the inscription on the memorial: "We will live as long as those live who remember us." His wish: "Humans should be human to other humans."

An ambassador of remembrance, the tireless contemporary witness was called by the mayor of Vienna, who was deeply impressed by Zalewski's commitment against forgetting the terrible deeds of the Nazi regime: "You are a role model in more ways than one: you have shown backbone throughout your life," said Michael Ludwig. Last but not least, he said, Zalewski had made it his mission "as a contemporary witness to warn against the terror regime of National Socialism and, in particular, to describe to young people their own terrible experiences." During the one-hour discussion in the town hall, Stanisław Zalewski also expressed the hope that there would be some form of future cooperation between the Association of Former Political Prisoners of Hitler's Prisons and Concentration Camps and the City of Vienna.

"My goal after my liberation was always to get young people to get involved in democracy. So that what I experienced is not repeated," Zalewski said at City Hall. It is therefore not surprising that he concluded this year's visit to Austria with a meeting with students from the Vienna Business School. Not without making a promise to the TV crew beforehand: "As long as I live and my health allows it, I will come to Austria in the coming years, too!" 

Source: Editorial team/APA OTS
Photos: Stanisław Żelasko

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