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 have traveled 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.
“Do not ever let this happen again to any people,” Lauder said, warning about the rising anti-Semitism.
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.”
People stood in silence as a Jewish survivor recited Hebrew prayers for the dead, bowing their heads or wiping 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.
World leaders gathered in Yerushalayim last week to mark the anniversary in what many saw as a competing observance. Among them were Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.
Politics intruded on that event, with Duda boycotting it in protest after Putin claimed that Poland played a role in triggering World War II. Duda had wanted a chance to speak before or after Putin to defend his nation’s record in face of those false accusations, but he was not given a speaking slot in Yerushalayim.
Those claims comes as many Eastern European countries in recent years have been mythologizing their own people’s behavior during the war and suppressing knowledge of wrongdoing, something Poland’s government also has been criticized for.
Duda said Monday at a news conference that he felt that in Yerushalayim, “Polish participation in the epic fight against the Nazis was ignored.”
At the commemoration, he did not mention Russia by name. Yet he stressed how Poland was invaded and occupied, losing 6 million of its citizens in the war, half of them Jews. He recalled how Poland fought the Germans on several fronts, warned the world in vain about the genocide of the Jews, and for decades has been a responsible custodian of Auschwitz and other sites of the German atrocities.
“Distorting the history of World War II, denying the crimes of genocide and negating the Holocaust as well as an instrumental use of the Auschwitz for whatever purposes is tantamount to desecration of the memory of the victims,” Duda said. “Truth about the Holocaust must not die.”
Among others attending the observances at Auschwitz, which is located in the part of southern Poland that was occupied by Germany during the war, were German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. The U.S. was represented by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Organizers of the event in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau state memorial museum and the World Jewish Congress, have sought to keep the spotlight on survivors.
On the eve of the commemorations, survivors, many leaning on their children and grandchildren for support, walked through the camp where they had been brought in on cattle cars and suffered hunger and illness and came close to death. They said they were there to remember, to share their histories with others and to make a gesture of defiance toward those who had sought their destruction.
“I have no graves to go to and I know my parents were murdered here and burned. So this is how I pay homage to them,” said Yvonne Engelman, a 92-year-old Australian who was joined by three more generations now scattered around the globe.
She recalled being brought in from a ghetto in what was then Czechoslovakia by cattle car, being stripped of her clothes, shaved and put in a gas chamber. By some miracle, the gas chamber did not work that day, and she later survived slave labor and a death march.
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, G-d forbid, what happened to the Jewish people then should never be repeated.”
In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron paid his respects at the city’s Shoah Memorial and warned about rising hate crimes in the country, which increased 27% last year.
“That anti-Semitism is coming back is not the Jewish people’s problem: It’s all our problem — it’s the nation’s problem,” Macron said.