Accessibility links

World Leaders, Survivors Gather at Auschwitz to Remember Victims

A host of world leaders will join survivors of the notorious Nazi death camp at Auschwitz Thursday for a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation by Soviet troops. Six decades after the so-called death factory was shut down, what went on there remains etched in much of the world's consciousness.

It is a cold, dark and gloomy place, especially forbidding on a winter day with snow covering the ground in sub-zero temperature.

But on Thursday, Auschwitz, Europe's symbol of human savagery, will be the focus of the continent's attention as a few thousand survivors of the camp and some of the Red Army soldiers who liberated it will pay homage to the estimated 1.5 million people who died in its gas chambers or perished from exhaustion, starvation or disease.

At least 30 heads of state and government will take part in the ceremony aimed at remembering the victims of Auschwitz and underlining the lessons of the holocaust.

The overwhelming majority of the victims of Auschwitz were Jews. But Gypsies, homosexuals, Soviet war prisoners, anti-Nazi resistance fighters from across Europe and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Poles were also liquidated in the camp.

Hans Koenig, an 82-year-old German Jew from Frankfurt spent nearly three years at Auschwitz after surviving other Nazi camps. He vividly remembers the day he arrived and the stench of incinerated corpses.

"The first thing? That was the impression like maybe this is a kind of hell…It smells like burnt meat, sweet, a certain smell. It's hard to forget it," he recalled.

The scale of the industrialized killing at the camp, the cruelty of the guards, and the experiments conducted on prisoners by Nazi doctors have made Auschwitz synonymous with a coldly efficient genocide and total degradation of humanity.

European leaders this week have marked Thursday's anniversary with warnings that the battle against intolerance continues.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed shame over the horrors of the Nazi era and promised that his country will always try to keep the memory of the holocaust alive. But he reminded an audience that included Auschwitz survivors that the Nazis came to power in the 1930s with widespread popular support.

"The majority of Germans today do not bear guilt for the holocaust, but they do bear a special responsibility,” he said. “The memory of war and the Nazi genocide are a part of our country's constitution. For some, it is a burden that is hard to bear."

The focus this week has been on the millions of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, six million in all, more than half of Europe's pre-war Jewish population. But Germany has been trying for years to make sense of why Germans acted as they did during the Nazi years.

Reinhardt Meilitz has had 60 years to reflect on who was to blame for the holocaust. Now 80 years old, he joined the Nazi party at age 18 and fought to the bitter end to defend Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

He says he knew Jews were being deported and that they suffered under the Nazis, but insists he did not find out about Auschwitz until after the war ended. Today, he makes no attempt to dodge what he considers his personal responsibility.

"The impulse to resist the truth is still there because it is so humiliating,” he said. “We have to accept that we, as an entire nation, were all of us criminals or cowards."

But not everybody in Germany shares Mr. Meilitz' view. A recent survey showed that more than one-half of Germans are fed up with constant talk about the holocaust.

Ray Reinitz, a German student visiting Auschwitz has ambivalent feelings on the subject.

"It's difficult for us,” he explained. “It's still there. Everywhere you go, you can see what Hitler and the Nazis did. But it's not us anymore."

But Jewish leaders warn against forgetting what went on at Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. Rabbi Israel Singer, the head of the World Jewish Congress, told the same Berlin audience addressed by Chancellor Schroeder that many Europeans seem to be unaware of or insensitive to the holocaust.

"Shamefully, the lesson born from this continental introspection has been forgotten so quickly,” he said. “One wonders if they were ever taught widely at all. And we experience insensitivity towards the holocaust by Europe's younger generation, sometimes from the highest and most important families."

Rabbi Singer was referring to British Prince Harry's recent wearing of a swastika at a costume party.

But while the world remembers the horrors of Nazism, does it forget more recent tragedies like the genocides in Cambodia during the 1970s and in Rwanda in 1994?

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan this week told the General Assembly that, since the holocaust, the world has, to its shame, failed more often than once to prevent or halt genocide. He has taken personal responsibility for the U.N.'s failure to respond quickly to the mass killings in Rwanda while he was director of U.N. peacekeeping.