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Survivors Mark Anniversary Of Nazi Death Camp Liberation

  • RFE/RL

The infamous entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the phrase "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes you free") above the gate.

The infamous entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the phrase "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes you free") above the gate.

A ceremony is set to begin today at the site of the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of its liberation amid growing concern about a resurgence of anti-Semitism in some countries.

Several hundred survivors of Auschwitz as well as world leaders were expected to be among those attending the January 27 ceremony.

Speaking in Paris on January 27, French President Francois Hollande vowed to combat the "unbearable" rising anti-Semitism in France, after figures showed anti-Jewish actions doubled over the past year.

On January 26, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a group of Holocaust survivors it was a "disgrace" that Jews in Germany faced insults, threats or violence.

Speaking in Berlin, she called Auschwitz a "warning" of what people can do to each other and said the fact that synagogues and Jewish institutions had to be guarded by police was like a "stain on our country."

January 27 is marked as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Auschwitz is one of the most indelible symbols of the genocide by Nazi Germany in which approximately 6 million Jews were killed. Many members of other minority groups including Roma, homosexuals, and the mentally ill were also murdered.

Merkel used the example of Auschwitz to implore those who recently have protested against Muslims in Germany that "we don't want to hear slogans full of hatred against people in Germany who found a home here."

Soviet Army soldiers sweeping westward after Hitler's forces were beaten back from the Soviet Union freed the prisoners of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.

The anniversary has aggravated ties between Russia and the West -- already at a post-Cold War low over the conflict in Ukraine -- with Russia venting anger over suggestions by Polish and Ukrainian officials that the camp was liberated mainly by Ukrainians.

While it is recorded that soldiers from the divisions referred to as the Ukrainian Front were involved in liberating Auschwitz the force was comprised of many nationalities.

That scrap added to tension after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced through a spokesman that he would not attend the January 27 ceremony.

In what some media outlets have portrayed as a backhanded move by Poland to prevent Putin from attending the ceremony, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum did not send invitations to any heads of state this year, instead notifying world leaders of the event and asking who would be coming.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, French President Francois Hollande, and German President Joachim Gauck were to participate, but Russia, the United States and Israel chosen to send lower-ranking representatives.

Royals from Belgium and The Netherlands are expected to be in attendance, as are more than a dozen presidents and prime ministers from across the globe.

Putin planned to visit the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on January 27.

In a message to the Auschwitz cermony, posted on the Kremlin website on January 26, Putin said the Holocaust was "one of the most tragic and shameful pages in human history."

He said it was "precisely the Red Army that saved not only the Jewish people but also other peoples of Europe and the world from annihilation" and warned against what he has frequently said are efforts in the West to downplay the Soviet contribution and paint Russia in a bad light.

Putin said that "any attempts to rewrite history and reconsider our country's contribution in the Great Victory in fact mean justificiation of the crimes of Nazism and open the path to the the revival of its deadly ideology."

The Auschwitz ceremony comes amid concerns about a rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, which have been deepened by an attack in which an Islamist gunman seizied hostages at a kosher grocery store in Paris on January 9 and killed four people there.

France's main Jewish group said on January 27 that the number of anti-Semitic acts registered there doubled in 2014 to 851, including 241 acts of physical violence.

At a Holocaust forum in Prague on January 26, European Jewish Congress chief Moshe Kantor warned that that Europe is "close to" a new exodus of Jews.

He said, "Jihadism is very close to Nazism. One could even say that they are two faces of the same evil."

But he suggested Jews should not be in a rush to leave Europe, and that he and others are working on legislation and other proposals to counteract "the threats of radical Islam, neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism in Europe."

With reporting by AP, AFP, the Guardian, and Haaretz