OSWIECIM, Poland (AP) — Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors and other mourners commemorated the 78th anniversary of the liberation of the German Nazi death camp on Friday, with some expressing horror that war had once again shattered the peace in Europe and may the lesson of Never Again be forgotten.
The former concentration and extermination camp is located in the town of Oświęcim in southern Poland, which was under occupation by German forces during World War II and became a site of systematic murder of Jews , Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and other targeted persons. for disposal by Adolf Hitler and his cronies.
In total, some 1.1 million people were killed in this vast complex before it was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.
Today the site, with its barracks, barbed wire and the ruins of gas chambers, is one of the world’s most recognized symbols of evil and a place of pilgrimage for millions of people around the world.
Yet it lies just 300 kilometers (185 miles) from Ukraine, where Russian aggression is creating unthinkable death and destruction – a conflict on the minds of many this year.
One survivor, Zdzisława Włodarczyk, said at Friday’s celebrations that the war had created a «sense of horror» in her.
Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz State Museum, compared Nazi crimes to those the Russians committed in Ukrainian towns like Bucha and Mariupol. He said they were inspired by a «similar sick megalomania» and that free people should not remain indifferent.
“Silence means giving the authors a voice,” Cywinski said. «To remain indifferent is to condone murder.»
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 2005. This year, no Russian officials were invited due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy marked the event by alluding to the situation in his own country.
«We know and remember that indifference kills with hate,» he said in a social media post.
“Indifference and hatred are always only able to create evil together. This is why it is so important that all who value life show determination when it comes to saving those whom hatred seeks to destroy.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has its roots in Italy’s postwar neo-fascist social movement, called the Holocaust «the abyss of humanity». An evil that has also affected our country with the infamy of the racial laws of 1938.
Bogdan Bartnikowski, a Pole who was 12 when he was transported to Auschwitz, said the first images he saw on television last February of refugees fleeing the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russia had triggered traumatic memories.
He was stunned to see a little girl in a large crowd of refugees holding her mother with one hand and clutching a teddy bear with the other.
«It was literally a blow to the head for me because I suddenly saw, after almost 80 years, what I had seen in a freight car during my transport to Auschwitz. A little girl was sitting next to me , hugging a doll on his chest,” said Bartnikowski, now 91.
Bartnikowski was among several Auschwitz survivors who spoke about their experiences to reporters on Thursday.
Another, Stefania Wernik, born in Auschwitz in November 1944, less than three months before its liberation, called Auschwitz “hell on earth”.
She said when she was born she was so small that the Nazis tattooed her number – 89136 – on her thigh. She was washed in cold water, wrapped in rags and subjected to medical experiments.
Yet her mother had plenty of milk, and they both survived. After the war, her mother returned home and reunited with her husband, and «the whole village came to see us and said it was a miracle.»
She called for «more fascism, which brings death, genocide, crimes, massacre and loss of human dignity».
Among those who attended Friday’s commemorations was Doug Emhoff, the husband of US Vice President Kamala Harris. Emhoff, the first Jewish person to be married to one of America’s two highest nationally elected officials, bowed his head before an execution wall in Auschwitz, where he left a wreath in the colors of the American flag and the words: «From the people of the United States of America.»
The Germans established Auschwitz in 1940 for Polish prisoners; later they expanded the complex, building death chambers and crematoria where Jews from all over Europe were brought by train to be murdered.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said «the suffering of 6 million innocent Jews murdered remains unforgettable – as does the suffering of the survivors».
«We recall our historic responsibility on Holocaust Remembrance Day so that our never again will endure in the future,» he wrote on Twitter.
The German parliament was organizing a memorial event this year focusing on those persecuted because of their sexual orientation. Thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were incarcerated and killed by the Nazis. Their plight was not publicly acknowledged until decades after the end of World War II.
Elsewhere around the world, events were planned on Friday to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual commemoration established by a United Nations resolution in 2005.
Frank Jordans in Berlin and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.