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Survivors, Dignitaries Commemorate Auschwitz Liberation

The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, 1945
(RFE/RL) -- Events have been taking place at Auschwitz-Birkenau to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp by Soviet troops.

Survivors, Soviet veterans, and leaders gathered for an emotionally-charged memorial event in sub-zero temperatures at the site of the World War II camp in German-occupied Poland.

In 2005, the United Nations declared this date International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual day of commemoration to honor the victims of the Nazi era.

In his speech at the gathering, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered a message of hope.

"As we stand here together to commemorate the past, we are hoping to build a future of decency and of truth and hope for all the peoples represented here and for all mankind," Netanyahu said.

Remembering The Holocaust

Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland is an enduring symbol of Nazi German genocide.

More than 1 million people were killed in the gas chambers at the camp or succumbed to disease and starvation before Soviet Red Army troops liberated it on January 27, 1945.

Most of the victims 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.

There were around 7,000 survivors in the camp on its liberation. "One time we were going to the bath and they would check us naked," recalls one of the survivors.

"And it depended on a pointing finger whether you were let through or declined. So it was a very upsetting moment, when your future depended on the pointing of an SS officer's finger."

Overall, an estimated 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the "unheard of brutality" of death camps created by Nazi Germany. The German-born pope turned his thoughts to the "countless victims of a blind racial and religious hatred" appealing that such tragedies never repeat themselves.

"The memory of these events, in particular of the tragedy of the Shoah [Holocaust] that struck the Jewish people, may arouse an evermore convinced respect for the dignity of every person, so that all men consider themselves as members of one single great family," the pope said.

"God Almighty may shed light of hearts and minds, so that such tragedies may occur never again."

Ahead of the main events in Poland, Israeli President Shimon Peres gave a speech to the German parliament in Berlin.

Peres issued a plea to the world to bring the remaining perpetrators of Nazi atrocities to justice. And he shared personal memories, recalling his grandfather who died when the Nazis set fire to the synagogue in Vishneva, Belarus.

Political Statements

In his speech, Peres also called Iran a threat to the world, describing its government as a "fanatical regime" that sponsors international terrorism.

"Just like our neighbors, we identify with the millions of Iranians who are rebelling against the dictatorship and against violence," Peres said.

"Just like them, we reject a fanatical regime that ignores the charter of the United Nations, a regime which threatens destruction and possesses nuclear plants and missiles with which to threaten its own and other citizens. The regime is a danger to the whole world."

Meanwhile, in a speech to Italy's parliament, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said: "Whether at the lowest level of politics or the highest level of spirituality, silence never helps the victims. Silence always helps the aggressor."

A source in Wiesel's entourage later told Reuters the words "highest level of spirituality" were a reference to war-time Pope Pius XII, who some Jewish leaders say did not speak out enough about the Holocaust.

And in Russia, Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar warned politicians in all countries against making heroes out of Nazi criminals.

The Interfax news agency said he was apparently referring to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's decree earlier this month granting World War II-era nationalist leader Stepan Bandera the status of Hero of Ukraine.

Bandera headed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which advocated Ukrainian independence. Official Soviet sources claimed that members of his movement had engaged in killing civilians in western Ukraine and helped to form Nazi SS divisions.

compiled from agency reports