Leaders mark Auschwitz liberation
KRAKOW, Poland -- World leaders have joined elderly Holocaust survivors in Poland to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz.
Thursday's ceremony at the site of the main death factory at Birkenau started with the mournful whistle of an imaginary train on the tracks that brought more than a million deportees to the camp.
Candles flickered atop the track leading into the vast, snow-covered camp amid a steady snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures.
Elderly survivors, many accompanied by younger relatives, attended the ceremony between the rusting barbed-wire fences, facing a monument to the victims.
"I am not here to talk about what happened. My only aim is to light a candle for my mother, whose ashes are who knows where in this camp," said Jan Wojciech Topolewski, a former prisoner whose mother died in Auschwitz.
Girl Scouts brought blankets and coffee to the survivors sitting in the freezing weather.
"Today I'm remembering my father, gassed here. I'm remembering the atrocious things they did to us here," said Franciszek Jozefiak, 80.
"I drank water from a dirty pool and, to punish me, an SS man jumped on my arm and broke it and jumped on my chest and broke two ribs."
Before the ceremony, survivors and officials met in nearby Krakow for a Holocaust forum, where they heard from one of the Soviet liberators.
"I would like to say to all the people on the earth: This should never be repeated, ever," said Maj. Anatoly Shapiro, 92, who commanded the first troops who entered Auschwitz.
"I saw the faces of the people we liberated -- they went through hell," he said in a recorded video greeting from New York, where he lives. Shapiro was too ill to travel to the commemoration.
The forum at Krakow's Slovacki theater opened with applause for Shapiro and three other Soviet army veterans who helped liberate Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski awarded one of the veterans, Yakov Vinnichenko, the Polish Officer's Cross. Two others, Genri Koptev-Gomolov and Nikolai Chertkov, were awarded the Cavalry Cross of the Polish Republic, The Associated Press reported.
"These commemorations are intended to promote knowledge of Auschwitz as widely as possible and bring the truth about the camps to the younger generation," Kwasniewski told Polish state radio, Reuters reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged to the gathering that anti-Semitism and xenophobia had surfaced in his country.
Tackling an issue the Kremlin has been accused of failing to confront directly, Putin said many in the world should be ashamed of new manifestations of anti-Semitism six decades after the defeat of fascism, AP reported.
"Even in our country, in Russia, which did more than any to combat fascism, for the victory of fascism, which did most to save the Jewish people, even in our country we sometimes unfortunately see manifestations of this problem and I, too, am ashamed of that," Putin said to long applause.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav reminded the Krakow gathering that Auschwitz is now part of the European Union, which Poland joined last year.
"Auschwitz must be placed in the central place of collective memory of the reunited Europe," AP quoted Katsav as saying.
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told the gathering that the Holocaust did not happen in some far-off place but "in the heart of the civilized world."
"The story of the camps shows that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted," he said.
"We are reminded that anti-Semitism may begin with words but rarely stops with words and the message of intolerance and hatred must be opposed before it turns into acts of horror."
Ukraine's newly elected president, Viktor Yushchenko, was greeted with a standing ovation when he entered the hall.
He said he brought his children to the event and spoke of his father, a wounded Soviet prisoner of war who survived Auschwitz.
"This is a sacred place for me and my family," Yushchenko said. "This is a place where Andrei Yushchenko, my father, suffered. There will never be a Jewish question in my country, I vow that."
Following the forum, the leaders, survivors and liberators headed to the infamous rail siding at Birkenau, where they will light candles as part of the official commemoration ceremony.
In Brussels, members of the European Parliament stood in a minute of silence to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust and to mark the anniversary.
"Everyone is surprised such a thing happened, but it did," said EU Parliament President Josep Borrell. "It's difficult to pay just memory to it. It is a battle against the weakness of memory, something which should never happen again."
The EU assembly then passed a resolution by 617 votes to 0, with 10 abstentions, condemning anti-Semitism and racism and paying homage to the victims of Nazi Germany, AP reported.
And in Germany, a Holocaust survivor warned his countrymen to be vigilant against anti-Semitism, particularly in the Muslim world. Arno Lustiger told German leaders gathered in parliament for the national Holocaust Remembrance Day that everyone must fight anti-Semitism, AP reported.
"The hate toward Israel and its people, the denial of the right to life of the Jewish state by the Arab-Muslim world, the violence against Jews and their institutions fills me with pain and anger," Lustiger said.
"Anti-Semitism and particularly its Islamic stamp should not just be the concern of the Jews because forces are working in Europe that want to bomb our civilization back into the Middle Ages," he said.
Parliament president Wolfgang Thierse called on Germans to fight continued anti-Semitism in Germany, especially in light of the regional resurgence of the far-right National Democratic Party -- which took nearly 10 percent of the vote in elections in the eastern state of Saxony last year.
Birkenau -- the largest of the camps at Auschwitz -- is where Nazi doctors decided which deportees would be sent to forced labor and which would be condemned to immediate death in the gas chambers.
An estimated 1.1 million to 1.5 million people, most of the Jews, were killed in the gas chambers or died of disease, starvation, abuse and exhaustion at Auschwitz.
When Soviet troops reached the camp 60 years ago, they found some 7,000 survivors, many barely alive.
The retreating Nazis had destroyed the gas chambers and crematoria and many of the barracks, and forced most of the remaining prisoners into the snow on a "death march" to camps further west.
Auschwitz is the most notorious of the death camps set up by Adolf Hitler to carry out his "final solution," the murder of Europe's Jewish population.
Six million Jews died in the Nazi camps, along with several million others, including Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.
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