Leaders Celebrate Auschwitz Liberation - Polish President Urges World to Remember (WASHINGTON POST) By Craig Whitlock and Jim VandeHei OSWIECIM, Poland 01/28/05 Page A01)
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OSWIECIM, Poland, Jan. 27 -- Except for the cremation ovens, now
reduced to piles of rubble, the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau
has been meticulously preserved. The frozen ground is still ringed by
barbed wire. The low-slung brick barracks, once overflowing with
skeletal prisoners, look sturdy.
For the world leaders and hundreds of concentration-camp survivors
who assembled here Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of the
liberation of Auschwitz, the freshness of the horrible crimes
committed here by the Third Reich was palpable. In an echo from that
time, a loud train whistle sounded across the snowdrifts, a reminder
of the boxcars that carried as many as 1.5 million doomed people into
the Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945.
"Where we are now gathered, no words can render the entire terrifying
truth about the horrors committed in this place," said Aleksander
Kwasniewski, president of Poland. "But we must speak, remember, cry
out: This was hell on Earth."
More than two dozen presidents, prime ministers, members of royalty
and other leaders sat in the bitterly cold open air into the night to
remember the 6 million victims of the Holocaust, most of them Jews.
Among those attending were Vice President Cheney, German President
Horst Koehler, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President
Jacques Chirac, Britain´s Prince Edward and Ukrainian President
Viktor Yushchenko, whose father was held at the camp as a Soviet
prisoner of war.
While the ceremony was designed to keep memories of the Holocaust
alive, it took place against a backdrop of recent events in Europe
that underscore the ways in which the continent is still coming to
grips with the lessons of the era.
In Germany, where denying the genocide against Jews is a crime, a
political party that sympathizes with neo-Nazis walked out of a
Holocaust memorial service in Saxony last week to protest what its
leaders called lack of recognition of the large numbers of German
civilians killed by Allied bombers during World War II. In Russia,
two dozen members of the parliament recently signed a letter blaming
Jews for "provoking" anti-Semitism and asking the government to ban
Jewish groups on grounds of extremism.
In France, nationalist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen -- who won 18
percent of the vote in the presidential election three years ago --
said in a magazine interview published this month that the severity
of the Nazi occupation of his country had been exaggerated, calling
it "not especially inhumane."
Around the same time, Britain´s Prince Harry showed up at a party
dressed as a Nazi, dealing a huge public embarrassment to the House
of Windsor. It dispatched Harry´s uncle, Prince Edward, to Auschwitz
as its representative for the ceremonies.
"Sixty years later, we face a reemergence of anti-Semitism in
Europe," said Israeli President Moshe Katsav. "Is it possible that
the deterrent power of the Shoah has weakened?" he asked, using the
Hebrew word for Holocaust. "The answer is in the hands of Europe´s
leaders, it is in the hands of the educators and historians. It is in
Germany´s President Koehler solemnly carried a candle at the ceremony
in memory of the victims, but he made no remarks. It is customary at
observances of this sort for German representatives to attend as
acknowledgment that the crimes were the work of Germans, but to
The Auschwitz complex consisted of three main camps and as many as 36
sub-camps. Prisoners were gassed, shot, starved or killed by other
means at what became the Third Reich´s deadliest killing field. About
1 million of the victims were Jews, brought into the camps in rural
southern Poland on trains that efficiently unloaded the passengers
right outside the gas chambers. Others included Poles, Soviet POWs,
members of the Roma minority, homosexuals and political opponents of
About 2,000 aging survivors of Auschwitz -- still bearing Nazi-
inscribed identification tattoos on their forearms -- braved painful
memories as well as the cold to return for the ceremony. They sat
huddled in thick blankets on chairs as smoke rose from a dozen giant
mesh pillars filled with blazing charcoal, a reminder of how the
Germans methodically eliminated any trace of the victims.
"To explain what happened is impossible," said Ted Lehman, a native
of a southern Polish village who was taken to Auschwitz at age 16 but
escaped death when his captors sent him to a slave labor camp in
Slovakia to manufacture munitions for the German army. He lost his
entire family in the Holocaust but shrugs his shoulders when asked
what he thinks of European politicians and public figures who
diminish the reality of what happened.
"They don´t bother me, these things," said Lehman, who emigrated to
the United States after the war and now lives in Richmond. "Look,
there´s anti-Semitism everywhere in Europe. But they can´t do it
again to the Jews, mostly for the reason that there are hardly left
here. They´re all in Israel or the U.S."
When Soviet troops liberated the camp 60 years ago, they discovered
about 7,000 inmates who had been left behind by the Nazis. One of
them was a girl named Eva, a 10-year-old Romanian Jew and a victim of
the gruesome medical experiments conducted by Auschwitz´s head
physician, Josef Mengele.
Now married and living in Terre Haute, Ind., Eva Mozes Kor has
returned to the camp several times over the past two decades, to make
sure that others remember what happened but also to celebrate her
"I know most people won´t understand this," she said, clutching a
black-and-white photograph taken by a Soviet soldier that shows her
on liberation day, standing inside a barbed-wire enclosure. "But I
have forgiven the Nazis. I have forgiven Mengele. I have forgiven
everybody. I no longer carry the burden of pain. I have given myself
the gift of forgiveness."
Cheney was not among the speakers at the ceremony on the grounds of
Auschwitz. But at a Holocaust memorial forum earlier in the day in
the city of Krakow, he said the lessons of how the Allied powers
confronted the Third Reich were still applicable today.
"Gathered in this place we are reminded that such immense cruelty did
not happen in a faraway, uncivilized corner of the world, but rather
in the very heart of the civilized world," Cheney said. "The death
camps were created by men with a high opinion of themselves -- some
of them well educated and possessed of refined manners -- but without
conscience. The story of the camps reminds us that evil is real and
must be called by its name and must be confronted."
While Cheney has made no overt link between Nazi fascism and modern
terrorism during his trip, Putin in his remarks at Auschwitz directly
connected the two in an apparent reference to Russia´s struggles with
Islamic separatists in Chechnya.
"We shall not only remember the past but also be aware of all the
threats of the modern world," Putin said. "Terrorism is among them,
and it is no less dangerous and cunning than fascism. As there were
no ´good´ and ´bad´ fascists there cannot be ´good´ and ´bad´
terrorists. Any double standards here are absolutely unacceptable and
deadly dangerous for civilization." (© 2005 The Washington Post
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