World leaders have joined the survivors of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz to remember the dead and to confront one of the darkest moments of Europe's history, the extermination of its Jews on the 60th anniversary of the the camp's liberation.
Auschwitz is, as one of its survivors called it Thursday, the world's biggest cemetery. But there are no graves, no markers, only the ashes of the estimated 1.5 million people who died in the camp's gas chambers or perished from exhaustion, starvation or disease. Their corpses were later incinerated.
More than 30 heads of state and government and nearly 2,000 people who survived the horrors of the camp attended the ceremony, which marked its liberation by Soviet troops 60 years ago on a cold, snowy day, at the spot where Nazi doctors sent new arrivals to the gas chambers.
The ceremony began with the evocative sound of a train bearing victims of Nazi persecution to the camp, the most notorious in the archipelago of the Third Reich's death factories.
When the trains would arrive from various parts of Europe, the doctors on the platform would swiftly decide who was fit to work, and who went directly to the gas chambers.
Most of the victims of Auschwitz were Jews, but there were also Gypsies, resistance fighters from across Europe, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals and tens-of-thousands of Poles.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav described Auschwitz as the most horrendous crime scene in human history. "It seems as if you can still hear the dead cry out. … When I step on the earth of the death camps, I am seized by a trembling fear, lest I tread on the ashes of the victims mixed in Europe's soil," he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the Nazis to today's terrorists. "But today, we shall
not only remember the past, but also be aware of the threats of the modern world," he said. "Among them is terrorism, and it's no less dangerous and cunning than Fascism. It is equally cruel. It has already claimed thousands of innocent lives. There were no good or bad Fascists or Nazis. There cannot be good or bad terrorists."
But the anniversary was less notable for the ringing pronouncements of the assembled leaders than it was for the quiet testimony of those who survived Auschwitz, and who are determined to keep the memory of what happened at the camp alive.
One of them is Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who went on to become Poland's foreign minister in the 1990s. "The question to be asked of ourselves and of the world is how much of the truth about those horrible experiences of totalitarianism we managed to pass down to the younger generation. I think that much, but not enough," he said.
And Simone Weil, one of France's leading intellectuals and politicians, who also survived Auschwitz, worries that mankind has not yet learned the lesson of the Holocaust. "And yet, the wish that we all have, which has been so often expressed - never again, never again - has not been respected, because, after all, since then, other genocides have been perpetrated," he said.
This was probably the last time the remaining Auschwitz survivors would be able to come together at the camp where they suffered so much. They are old now, but they are adamant that what they and all the people who passed through the Nazi death factories experienced should never be forgotten.