Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp prayed and wept as they marked the 75th anniversary of its liberation, returning Monday to the place where they lost entire families and warning about the ominous growth of anti-Semitism and hatred in the world.
“We have with us the last living survivors, the last among those who saw the Holocaust with their own eyes,” Polish President Andrzej Duda told those at the commemoration, which included the German president as well as Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders.
“The magnitude of the crime perpetrated in this place is terrifying, but we must not look away from it and we must never forget it,” Duda said.
About 200 camp survivors attended, many of them elderly Jews and non-Jews who travelled from Israel, the United States, Australia, Peru, Russia, Slovenia and elsewhere. Many lost parents and grandparents in Auschwitz or other Nazi death camps during World War II, but were joined by children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
They gathered under an enormous, heated tent straddling the train tracks that had transported people to Birkenau, the part of the vast complex where most of the murdered Jews were killed in gas chambers and then cremated. Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945.
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, brought the crowd to tears with the story of a survivor who was separated from his family: The man watched his young daughter, in a red coat, walk to her death, turning into a small red dot in the distance before disappearing forever.
After the end of the war, when “the world finally saw pictures of gas chambers, nobody in their right mind wanted to be associated with the Nazis,” he recalled. “But now I see something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, the open and brazen spread of anti-Jewish hatred.”
“Do not be silent! Do not be complacent! Do not let this ever happen again – to any people!” Lauder said.
As a Jewish survivor recited Hebrew prayers for the dead, the crowd bowed their heads or wiped away tears. Clergymen of other faiths also prayed.
Then, with the famous gate and barbed wire illuminated in the dark and cold evening, guests marched in a procession to place candles at a memorial to the victims set amid the remains of the gas chambers.
Most of the 1.1 million people murdered by the Nazi German forces at the camp were Jews, but other Poles, Russians and Roma were imprisoned and killed there.
A 96-year-old survivor, Jeanette Spiegel, was 20 when she was brought to Auschwitz, where she spent nine months. Today she lives in New York and is fearful of rising anti-Semitic violence in the United States.
“I think they pick on the Jews because we are such a small minority and it is easy to pick on us,” she said, fighting back tears. “Young people should understand that nothing is for sure, that some terrible things can happen and they have to be very careful. And that, God forbid, what happened to the Jewish people then should never be repeated.”
The Associated Press