Elderly Auschwitz survivors gathered in the snow at the site of the former death camp today to mark the 65th anniversary of its liberation.
Survivors, some with grown children – and others there to honour the millions killed by the Nazis – moved among the barracks and watchtowers of Auschwitz and Birkenau, neighbouring camps that stand as powerful symbols of the Holocaust.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined Polish leaders for commemorative ceremonies at Birkenau, the larger of the two camps, where about a million Jews were killed.
The tribute marks the day the Red Army liberated the camp in 1945, and is part of worldwide events on International Holocaust Remembrance Day – established by the United Nations in 2005 as a global day of commemoration.
One survivor, Jadwiga Bogucka, an 84-year-old Pole sent to Auschwitz in August 1944 in mass retribution against Warsaw residents for an uprising against Nazi rule, recalled that the weather was similar to January 27, 1945, when she woke up and found that the Nazis had fled.
“It was all covered in snow and it was very cold. There was no gong as usual for breakfast that morning but the previous night there had been the usual terror, or even worse – the roll call, the screaming of the SS men,” said Mrs Bogucka, who was 19 at the time.
“I left the barrack to see what was going on (and) there were dead bodies everywhere because the Germans had shot anyone still able to move or who tried to flee.”
At the Vatican, the German-born Pope spoke of “the horror of crimes of unheard-of brutality that were committed in the death camps created by Nazi Germany”.
“May the memory of those events – especially the tragedy of the Shoah that has struck the Jewish people – induce respect for the dignity of every person so that all men can perceive themselves as one big family.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed to the German parliament, calling for the surviving perpetrators of the Holocaust to be brought to justice.
“Across the world, survivors of the Holocaust are gradually departing from the world of the living,” he said.
“At the same time, men and women who took part in the most odious activity on earth – that of genocide – still live on German and European soil, and in other parts of the world. My request of you is: 'Please do everything to bring them to justice'.”
The Nazis opened Auschwitz as a concentration camp in the summer of 1940 after it invaded and occupied Poland.
Its first prisoners were non-Jewish Poles and others. Because of its central location, Germany soon turned it into a centre for implementing the “Final Solution”, the plan to kill Europe’s Jews.
By war’s end at least 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, but also non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies and others, died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau or from starvation, disease and forced labour.