An emotional Doug Emhoff wiped away tears on Friday as he laid a wreath at the death wall in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where Nazis killed millions of Jews during World War II.
Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, was visiting the camp to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He’s on a six-day trip to Poland and Germany to discuss combatting the rising tide of anti-semitism in the world.
The trip was personal for Emhoff, who is the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president. He was visibly emotional at many points during the tour, shaking his head in disbelief at parts and bowing his head as he laid a stone, a Jewish mourning ritual, at the site of a demolished crematorium.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff wipes away a tear after laying a wreath at the death wall at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp
Doug Emhoff holds onto the ribbons of the wreath he laid, which read ‘From the people of the United States of America’
But the most emotional moment was at Death Wall, where SS officers shot and killed thousands of prisoners between 1941-1943.
Wearing a yarmulke, the second gentleman bowed his head before the wall and stood in silence. He laid a wreath with a sash reading ‘From the people of the United States of America,’ tugging at its ribbons as he stood there.
The he wiped away tears as he walked away.
Emhoff has family ties to the region – his great grandparents fled persecution from the are that is now known as Poland in the early 19th century.
This tour is his highest profile solo event to date and comes as he steps up his own role within President Joe Biden’s administration, becoming its most prominent voice on combatting antisemitism.
At Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Nazis killed 1.1 million Jews during World War II, Emhoff toured a gas chamber and the crematorium. He left a long message in the guest book after his tour.
The weather fit the somber day and occasion – the skies were gray and snow flurries fell as Emhoff and his guide walked around the camp. Temperatures were below freezing.
Doug Emhoff walked through the notorious entrance gate at Auschwitz, bearing the German phrase ‘Arbeits Macht Frei’ (work makes you free)
Doug Emhoff was visibly emotional throughout many parts of the camp tour
The second gentleman laid a stone, a Jewish mourning ritual, at the site of a demolished crematorium
Doug Emhoff visited Auschwitz-Birkenau to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Emhoff walked through the notorious entrance gate, bearing the German phrase ‘Arbeits Macht Frei’ (work makes you free). He paused before entering, shaking his head as he listened his guide talk about the camp.
He also visited the railroad tracks where prisoners were shipped in during the war. He stood near a single, wooden rail car displayed in front of the ruins of barracks.
His face was heavy with emotion as stood in front of the chamber. A nearby sign explained this was where prisoners were lined up after arriving by train. In the selection process, an SS doctor would pick able-bodied prisoners to work in the camps and all others were immediately sent to their deaths in the gas chambers.
Many parts of the camp were dismantled by the Nazis as the war came to an end. Some features rebuilt after the war when the camp was turned into a memorial and World Heritage sit. The Nazis destroyed parts of the Death Wall, the gas chamber, and crematorium that operated from March 1943 to November 1944 to remove evidence of atrocities.
Emhoff visited the ruins of the crematorium, where he pulled a stone from his pocket and placed it on moss-covered bricks at his feet. He paused in silence and then took one last look around the vast ruins of buildings and barbed wire before continuing the tour.
To wrap up his tour, Emhoff and other American officials – Deborah Lipstadt, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism; U.S. Ambassador to Poland Mark Brzezinski; and Ellen Germain, US special envoy for Holocaust issues – lit candles at a large stone memorial.
The second gentleman than joined a memorial service commemorating the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Two camp survivors spoke during the commemoration event: Dr. Eva Umlauf and Zdzisława Włodarczyk.
At the outdoor ceremony, a group of 18 survivors were wrapped up in wool blankets to help keep them warm on the bitter cold day. Emhoff joined them in placing a candle by the ruins.
Doug Emhoff speaks with Holocaust survivor, Marian Turski during the memorial ceremony
US Ambassador in Poland Mark Brzezinski (right) and the Second Gentleman of the United States Doug Emhoff (left) hold candles during the commemorations on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Doug Emhoff joins Holocaust survivors in placing candles at a memorial wall
Auschwitz, which is the name of the complex of over 40 concentration camps and death camps, is located in Southern Poland, less than 200 miles from the border with Ukraine.
During World War II, it was a major site of the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ and became a place of systematic murder of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and Roma.
As the extent of the Nazis atrocities became known after World War II ended, Auschwitz became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust.
The camp was liberated by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended observances at the camp in 2005, marking the 60th anniversary of its liberation. This year, no Russian official was invited due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.