"Dear friends, I get this one question all the time: as someone who survived hell, what have you learnt from that experience? What do you want to say to young people today? If I had to choose one or two words out of all the lessons and all the words, I would choose these: empathy, compassion. This is what matters in life.”
Marian Turski has been developing his empathy throughout his life. He started early – as a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old in the Łódź Ghetto: "One of the duties of every member of our organisation, the Trade Union Left (Polish: Lewica Związkowa) – we considered ourselves communists, at least in spirit – was to give daily donations (please don't laugh when you hear this) of two spoonfuls of soup to the needy.” But it was not just about food. In Auschwitz, Turski understood that “help is not just a matter of giving others that spoonful of food […] or those crumbs of bread, it is also about imbuing [in the other person] a little spirit, some zest, interest, curiosity […]."
His naive, youthful faith in building a new, fairer Poland pushed him towards party structures. Marian Turski has never tried to conceal the views he held back in those years. He does not whitewash his past, but neither does he blame himself for believing in the People's Poland at one stage in his life. “I considered myself a revolutionary […]. I was the electoral commissioner for the referendum, and I will openly admit that we tampered with some things, because we thought that it was in Poland's national interest to guarantee absolute unanimity as to the approval of settlement in the Recovered […] Territories. That was our thinking at the time – to get rid of the Germans from the country as quickly as possible.” Regardless of his painful experiences and former convictions, but also thanks to the lessons he learned from them, Marian Turski has since become a fervent advocate of Polish-German reconciliation. His activism in this regard won him the Cross of Merit 1st Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany; he is a member of the Council of the House of the Wannsee Conference – Memorial and Educational Site in Berlin.
In 1965, while on a scholarship in the United States, Marian Turski witnessed landmark events in the struggle to end racial discrimination. He took part in the famous march from Selma to Montgomery led by Martin Luther King. The march to Alabama’s capital was a response to systemic violence against African Americans and has become one of the symbols of the struggle for equality.
During his visit to Warsaw in May 2011, erstwhile President of the United States Barack Obama did not hide his surprise upon learning that a Polish Holocaust Survivor had participated in the 1965 march. “‘But what did you go there for?,’ he asks. I say: listen, you will be surprised, and I will tell you – simply because of solidarity. Do you know the word solidarity? I simply believed that I, specifically as a white person, should walk in solidarity with the local people."
As a long-time columnist and head of the historical department of the Polityka weekly, member of the International Auschwitz Council and the board of the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland, Marian Turski has greatly contributed to restoring the memory of the Holocaust and tirelessly warns subsequent generations of the dangers of contempt, hatred, violence, and indifference to the injustice of others. He was also President of the Council of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and for many years strove for the creation of a Jewish museum in Muranów. To this day, he actively participates in the life of the institution. He describes himself as a custodian of the memory of Polish Jews. In a moving speech given at the opening ceremony of POLIN Museum on 28 October 2014, he said: “My Father, my Brother, you who died in the gas chambers – I, who survived Auschwitz, wish to tell your shadows, and the shadows of those murdered like you: Mir zenen do – we are here."
Marian Turski’s life experiences have taught him to be open to other people and to accept them as they are. He admits that it has not always been this way – and he does so with his trademark humility after receiving an award for working for the peaceful co-existence of societies, religions, and cultures: “In Auschwitz itself homosexuals were already few and far between, we rarely met them, but we had a prejudice against them. Today, I realise how much we succumbed to the stereotypes perpetuated by the Nazis […]. Today, I am ashamed of that."
On many occasions, Marian Turski has shared his important insights: “It is natural that we use the phrases ‘never again,’ ‘Auschwitz never again.’ But if we want this call to be more than a mere slogan, an empty phrase, we must, we should learn to understand other people, sometimes strangers; people who are different from us; who are guided in life by something different from ourselves; who are different from us, from me, from you, from us together. This is the only thing I could suggest as a Holocaust survivor.”
Turski has received numerous awards and distinctions for his merits in promoting cooperation across divisions, preserving knowledge about the Holocaust, and raising awareness of hateful speech and acts. Among these are the Officer's Cross of the Order of the Legion of Honour (2012), the Gold Medal "Merited to Culture Gloria Artis" (2015) and the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (2020). His public appearances reveal his excellent memory and a remarkable lightness of speaking – he does not read from a script and freely weaves in asides and digressions. It is not without reason that crowds of people tuned in to hear him discuss dignity and respect in a talk held by the Commissioner for Citizens’ Rights at the Pol'and'Rock Festival in 2020. Turski's combination of straightforwardness, ease of finding his way in the digital sphere, and readiness to face the challenges of the modern world have also led him to write an open letter addressed to Mark Zuckerberg, the creator and head of Facebook. Reprinted in newspapers around the world, the letter calls for a ban on promoting Holocaust denial via social media.
Over time, the speeches of Marian Turski have to come reflect his growing concern for the future of society, especially of the younger generations. In 2019, he was invited to the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony taking place at the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York. He referred to the words of a rabbi he had heard earlier, quoting the biblical phrase "love your neighbour as yourself." Freely combining a humorous tone with an important warning, Turski ended his address with the words: "I wouldn’t go as far, Rabbi Schneier. I think: before we start love, let’s start with something else. Let’s start with reducing, with cutting, with lessening hatred, animosity, hostility! We must do it! If not – who will protect our children, our grandchildren, from a world disaster, from a world catastrophe?"
Marian Turski addressed young people in his famous speech at the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz: “And this is what I would like to say to my daughter, my grandchildren, my daughter's peers, my grandchildren, wherever they live. […] It is very important – thou shall not be indifferent if you see historical lies. Thou shall not be indifferent when you see the past distorted for the sake of current politics. Thou shall not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against […]. Thou shall not be indifferent when any authority violates the existing social contracts. Be faithful to this commandment. The Eleventh Commandment: thou shall not be indifferent. Because if you don't, you won't even notice when another Auschwitz suddenly falls from the sky upon you and your descendants.”
Adam Bodnar concluded his laudation in honour of Marian Turski with the following words: “The truth is that Marian Turski is much needed today. As an authority, as a guide. As someone we can trust in this jittery world full of bad words and bad emotions.”