For what could be the last time, elderly Holocaust survivors returned Monday to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp 75 years after its liberation, to sound the alarm over a surge in anti-Semitic attacks on two continents.
More than 200 survivors from around the globe, some wearing scarves in the blue-and-white stripes of their death camp uniforms, returned to the site that Nazi Germany built in Oswiecim in then-occupied Poland, to share accounts and honour more than 1.1 million mostly Jewish victims.
The memorial ceremony in a sprawling tent set up in front of the red brick “gate of death” at the Birkenau side of the camp was held following deadly attacks against Jews, and the rise of white supremacist groups in the US and far-right parties in Europe.
Royals, presidents and prime ministers from around 60 countries joined the survivors at Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp that symbolises the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
As night fell, survivors and dignitaries carried flickering candles as they walked along the railway that brought Jews from across Europe to the gas chambers, before laying wreaths and their candles at a memorial monument.
The survivors had passed through the chilling “Arbeit macht Frei,” translated as “Work makes you free,” black wrought-iron gate at Auschwitz earlier on Monday before laying floral wreaths by the Death Wall where Nazi troops had shot thousands of prisoners.
“Auschwitz didn’t fall suddenly from the sky, Auschwitz crept and tiptoed. Taking small steps, it came closer, until this happened here,” warned Marian Turski, 93, a Polish-Jewish survivor who called for vigilance against the abuse of minorities’ rights as key to safeguarding democracy and preventing another genocide.
“Don’t be indifferent!” he implored the royals and politicians gathered at the evening memorial ceremony.
From mid-1942, the Nazis systematically deported Jews from across Europe to six camps – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.
“Too many people, in too many countries made Auschwitz happen,” World Jewish Congress head Ronald Lauder said in an address.
“Practically every other European country helped the Nazis gather up their Jewish citizens,” he noted.
“It’s shameful that 75 years later they [Auschwitz survivors] now see that their grandchildren face the same hatred again... this must never be tolerated,” Lauder said, pointing to a spike in anti-Semitic rhetoric and sporadically deadly violence in the US and Europe.
Polish President Andzej Duda spoke out against Holocaust denial and historical revisionism after recently criticising Russian President Vladimir Putin who falsely accused Poland of colluding with Adolf Hitler and contributing to the outbreak of World War II.
Allies knew in 1942
Several heads of state, the presidents of Germany, Israel and Ukraine, and France’s prime minister were among the leaders who attended the memorial.
At a separate Holocaust memorial event in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germans “bear the responsibility of making everyone feel safe at home in Germany and in Europe”. She vowed to combat “intolerance and hatred, racism and anti-Semitism” amid a resurgence of it in Europe.
While the world only learned the full extent of its horrors after Soviet troops entered the camp on January 27, 1945, the Allies had detailed information about Nazi Germany’s genocide against Jews much earlier.
In December 1942, Poland’s then London-based government-in-exile forwarded a document, titled The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland, to western officials.
The document included detailed accounts of the unfolding Holocaust as witnessed by members of the Polish resistance, but drew disbelief and only muted reactions from the international community.
Polish resistance fighters Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki had risked their lives in separate operations to infiltrate and then escape from death camps and ghettos in occupied Poland, including Auschwitz.
Considered an exaggeration and Polish war propaganda, “a lot of these reports were simply not believed”, Oxford historian Professor Norman Davies said.
Despite “strong demands” by the Polish and Jewish resistance for Allies to bomb railways leading to Auschwitz and other camps, “the military’s attitude was ‘we’ve got to concentrate on military targets, not on civilian things’,” Davies said.
“One of the targets that the [British] military did bomb was a synthetic fuel factory near Auschwitz” in 1943-44, he added.
Although Allied warplanes flew over the death camp, no orders were issued to bomb it.
“It was one of the biggest crimes committed by those that were indifferent, because they knew what was happening here,” Auschwitz survivor David Lenga, a 93-yer-old Polish Jew who now lives in California, said next to a barbed wire fence inside the former camp.
“They could have done something about it and they deliberately didn’t.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi death and concentration camp, and the site where the most people were killed.
Victims were primarily European Jews, but also Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and Poles.
Run from 1940 until 1945, Auschwitz was part of a vast network of camps built across Europe to carry out Hitler’s “Final Solution” of genocide against an estimated 10 million Jews in Europe.