In the face of hatred, we cannot be indifferent

A group of torch-wielding protesters gather in a Charlottesville, Virginia, recently to protest the planned removal of a statue Gen. Robert E. Lee

Piotr M.A. Cywiński is Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial, President of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)Barely seven decades ago, smoke billowed from the chimneys of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria. They smoked incessantly because the German Nazis wanted to completely exterminate European Jews.

The Holocaust -- the Shoah -- did not come out of nowhere.
The Auschwitz concentration camp was established before the extermination camp came into being. Prior to that, Polish territories were occupied and incorporated into the Third Reich. Some time earlier still, the Second World War broke out across Europe. Before the war, Jews were deprived of fundamental rights and civil liberties in Germany. And before that, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers' Party -- the Nazis -- won in democratic, free elections.
We have seen similar kinds of hatred pop up in numerous guises throughout history -- before and after the Holocaust. The model, however, is always more or less the same.
    First, social frustration provides fertile ground to demagogy and populism. Then, the absence of an early response blurs the boundary of acceptable public discourse and the hate speech intensifies -- followed by acts of hate. The imagined enemy -- the scapegoat -- is then dehumanized. Finally, it turns out to be too late. The machine of institutionalized hatred does away with any form of social control.
    It happened in the very heart of Europe. It happened in Rwanda. It was what the Armenians experienced. It all happened so recently that it is still contemporary history.
    And today, in Europe, in the US and many other democratic countries, neo-Nazis, racists, anti-Semites, nationalists and xenophobes are reviving and growing in strength.
    Under the pretext of freedom of speech and the right to public expression of views -- values which mean nothing to them -- preachers of hatred are once again poisoning people's minds. Their slogans appear in the media and they are increasingly represented at the polls. It's all as if nothing had happened.
    Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor, warned: "It happened, therefore it can happen again ... It can happen anywhere."
    A similar fear is expressed in the words of all those who experienced the hell of Auschwitz. Those whose hope rests in two words: "never again." Devastatingly, they lived to witness the fragility of this call.
    Today, only a few of those witnesses are still alive -- right at the moment the Hydra of hatred is beginning to regrow the brown-shirted monster's head.
    This raises an alarming question about the awareness and responsibility of politicians, journalists, educators, historians and people like me.
    The choice is simple: either we collectively put forward a clear and absolute stop to hate speech and acts of hate. Or we will walk down the path of indifference. The latter option, however, only leads to acquiescence to evil. It will only bring us closer to human suffering and death.
    On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Ronald Lauder -- the man who publicly refused to shake hands with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi -- said: "World silence leads to Auschwitz. World indifference leads to Auschwitz."
    I believe he was right. Freedom, democracy, human rights, justice. These are not values given once and for all. We quickly forget about them and treat them as a definitive acquisition of civilization.
    Now would be a good time for us to remember words of Elie Wiesel, who warned: "indifference is the epitome of evil."
    We stand at a crossroads. This is the moment -- perhaps the last moment -- when people in free countries can still choose how to shape our educational system, public debate and the language we use in our political discourse.
    Either we grasp this opportunity and reject this hatred. Or, we choose to remain indifferent.
    Piotr M.A. Cywiński is Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial President of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. This article and its additional elements were produced by CNN.