Auschwitz anniversary marked as peace in Europe again shattered by war
Survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau have commemorated the 78th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi German death camp in the final months of the Second World War, with some expressing horror that war has again shattered peace in Europe and the lesson of “Never Again” is being forgotten.
The former concentration and extermination camp is located in the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland, which during the Second World War was under the occupation of German forces and became a place of systematic murder of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and others targeted for elimination by Adolf Hitler and his henchmen.
In all, some 1.1 million people were killed at the vast complex before it was liberated by Soviet troops on January 27 1945.
Today the site, with its barracks and barbed wire and the ruins of gas chambers, stands as one of the world’s most recognised symbols of evil and an admonition of “Never Again” that has been a site of pilgrimage for millions.
Yet it lies only 300 kilometres (185 miles) from Ukraine, where Russian aggression is creating unthinkable death and destruction – a conflict on the minds of many of those paying tribute to the victims of eight decades ago.
One survivor, Zdzislawa Wlodarczyk, said during observances on Friday that the war has created a “feeling of horror” in her.
Piotr Cywinski, Auschwitz state museum director, compared Nazi crimes to those the Russians have committed in Ukrainian towns such as Bucha and Mariupol.
He said they were inspired by a “similar sick megalomania” and that free people must not remain indifferent.
“Being silent means giving voice to the perpetrators,” Mr Cywinski said.
“Remaining indifferent is tantamount to condoning murder.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended observances marking the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 2005, but he has been unwelcome for years now.
This year, no Russian official at all was invited due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the event with a post on his official Telegram feed that alluded to his own country’s situation.
“We know and remember that indifference kills along with hatred,” he said.
“Indifference and hatred are always capable of creating evil together only. That is why it is so important that everyone who values life should show determination when it comes to saving those whom hatred seeks to destroy.”
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has its roots in the post-Second World War neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, called the Holocaust “the abyss of humanity. An evil that touched also our country with the infamy of the racial laws of 1938”.
Bogdan Bartnikowski, a Pole who was 12 years old when he was transported to Auschwitz, said the first images he saw on television last February of refugees fleeing after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine triggered traumatic memories.
He was stunned seeing a little girl in a large crowd of refugees holding her mother with one hand and grasping a teddy bear in 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 when I was being transported to Auschwitz. A little girl was sitting next to me, hugging a doll to her chest,” Mr Bartnikowski, now 91, said.
Mr Bartnikowski was among several survivors of Auschwitz who spoke about their experiences to journalists on the eve of Friday’s commemorations.
One of the others, Stefania Wernik, who was born at Auschwitz in November 1944, less than three months before its liberation, spoke of Auschwitz being a “hell on earth”.
She said when she was born she was so tiny that the Nazis tattooed her number – 89136 – on her thigh.
Ms Wernik was washed in cold water, wrapped in rags and subjected to medical experiments.
And yet her mother had abundant milk, and they both survived.
After the war, her mother returned home and reunited with her husband, and “the whole village came to look at us and said it’s a miracle”.
Ms Wernik read out an appeal to the next generations to be vigilant about insidious ideologies.
“No more fascism, which brings death, genocide, crimes, slaughter and loss of human dignity,” she said.
Among those who attended Friday’s commemorations was Doug Emhoff, the husband of US vice president Kamala Harris.
Mr Emhoff, the first Jewish person to be married to one of the top two nationally elected US officials, bowed his head at an execution wall at Auschwitz, where he left a wreath of flowers in the US flag’s colours 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 across Europe were brought by train to be murdered.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said “the suffering of six million innocently murdered Jews remains unforgotten – as does the suffering of the survivors”.
“We recall our historic responsibility on Holocaust Memorial Day so that our Never Again endures in future,” he wrote on Twitter.
The German parliament was holding a memorial event focused this year on those who were persecuted for their sexual orientation.
Thousands of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people were incarcerated and killed by the Nazis.
Their fate was only publicly recognised decades after the end of the Second World War.
Elsewhere in the world on Friday events were planned to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, an annual commemoration established by a United Nations resolution in 2005.
About six million European Jews were killed in the Holocaust and millions more were killed in the global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945.