David Dushman, among the first liberators of Auschwitz, has died. As a generation passes, its memories must not.

By January 27, 1945, David Dushman had already witnessed more than his share of horrors. He had survived two of the most devastating battles of World War II — at Stalingrad and Kursk. Yet, the shock of what he found after breaching the fence at Auschwitz on that day — he was one of the first Soviet soldiers to do so — stayed with him. By all accounts, it informed his compassionate persona through his years as an Olympic fencing coach after the war. Dushman died on June 5 in Neuperlach, Germany, at 96, having lived a full, rich life. There are records, movies and books about the war he fought, the politics that drove it. Yet, as the generation that witnessed those horrors passes on, the memory of what they saw and heard and learnt seems to be dying with them. It shouldn’t.

It is easy to compartmentalise Auschwitz, and the horror of the million killed, and to think of it as an aberration that emerged from a mass psychopathy. The ideologies that began that war — a sense of victimhood, the celebration of strong leaders, war-mongering as a political tactic — haven’t all gone away, some keep coming back to haunt. Dushman, and those like him, who knew the tragedy up close, not as history or even as art, were important because their memories were the lived experience of that time.

In every field, platitudes and clichés are uttered about the lessons of history — about learning from wars past, pandemics a century ago. The reason they are so easily forgotten, perhaps, is because they are at a distance from those in the present. That’s why memory and experience are important. That’s why a memorial exists at Auschwitz, and so many mourned Dushman’s passing. The hope is that as that generation leaves us, their memories — and the lessons from them — are not relegated to being just blurry words in speed-read history books.

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