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Auschwitz Survivors, Liberators Honored

Auschwitz survivors greet their liberators Prague, 27 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Commemorations are under way in Poland to mark the liberation 60 years ago of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

World leaders have gathered alongside survivors and soldiers from the Soviet Red Army who freed the camp, where more than 1 million people, most of them Jews, were murdered during World War II. They've been paying tribute to the victims -- and warning against the resurgence of anti-Semitism.

The mournful sound of screeching brakes opened today's ceremony, held between the ruins of two of the camps' gas chambers. The sound recalled the cattle trains that once transported people to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland.

More than 30 heads of state and top officials joined survivors -- many wearing their prisoner armbands and numbers -- to pay tribute to those who died there.

Polish Culture Minister Waldemar Dabrowski was the first to speak.

"We are on the site of the most gigantic cemetery in the world, a cemetery where there are no graves, not stones, but where the ashes of more than 1.5 million beings lie," Dabrowski said.

More than 1 million people were murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau or succumbed to disease and starvation. Most of them were Jews from across Europe, sent to die as part of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's "final solution." But the victims also included Poles, Roma, homosexuals, political opponents, and others.

Today's ceremony was held on the spot where new arrivals were subject to "selection" -- a few were deemed able to work, while most were taken immediately to the gas chambers.

The main ceremony was closed to the general public. But several thousand visitors came to Auschwitz-Birkenau to watch -- and to pay their respects. RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan was in Auschwitz today for the commemoration ceremonies.
"We are on the site of the most gigantic cemetery in the world, a cemetery where there are no graves, not stones, but where the ashes of more than 1.5 million beings lie." -- Polish Culture Minister Waldemar Dabrowski

"It's a pretty interesting atmosphere. There are people from all over the world. I've heard French, Italian Polish, German, English. I saw some Scots in kilts," Donovan said. "There are really people who have come from all over Europe and the world to be here for this. Some people have some sort of connection, some connection to somebody who was lost here in the Holocaust; [others have] just come because of their own personal feelings about this and wanted to be here."

At a forum in Krakow earlier today, speakers urged the world to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.

They also warned against resurgent anti-Semitism.

"Unfortunately, the spores of this disease [anti-Semitism and xenophobia] have not been eliminated completely, and we are not working effectively enough," Russian President Vladimir Putin said. "Even in our country, in Russia, which has done more than others to combat and defeat fascism, which has done more than others to save the Jewish people, we see signs of this disease. And I am also ashamed of that."

Today's commemorations are designed as a tribute to the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as a plea -- never to let the horrors of the Holocaust happen again.

(RFE/RL/wire reports)

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