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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Elderly Auschwitz survivors urge world never to forget


Oswiecim (Poland) (AFP) - For what may be the last time, elderly Holocaust survivors returned to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp 70 years after its liberation, to urge the world never to forget one of history's worst atrocities.

Around 300 survivors, some wearing scarves in the blue-and-white stripes of their death camp uniforms, joined world leaders for an emotional memorial at the epicentre of the Nazi genocide of Jews.

The commemoration at the gates of the cold and austere camp, which was blanketed in snow, comes amid concern over a resurgence in anti-Semitism in France, Germany and other parts of Europe.

"We do not want our past to be our children's future," said survivor Roman Kent, 86, his voice breaking with emotion,

The mournful wail of the "shofar" -- a traditional Jewish ram's horn symbolising freedom -- sounded as participants prayed for the victims near the camp's red-brick entrance.

"We are in a place where civilisation collapsed," Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski told those gathered as he paid tribute to the Soviet troops who liberated the camp, where 1.1 million people, nearly all Jews, were exterminated.

View gallery Holocaust survivors greet each other as they arrive …Holocaust survivors greet each other as they arrive to pay tribute to fallen comrades in the former  …

Komorowski's remark appeared aimed at making amends for the furore caused by Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, who angered Moscow by crediting Ukrainian soldiers, rather than the Red Army, with liberating Auschwitz. 

As night fell, dignitaries and survivors walked along the railway that ferried Jews from across Europe to the gas chambers to lay wreaths and candles.

"I thought I'd be incinerated here, never to experience my first kiss, but somehow, a 14-year-old girl, I survived," Halina Birenbaum, who was born in Poland in 1929, told hundreds of dignitaries and fellow survivors, most of them in their eighties and nineties. 

The grandson of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoess was among the attendees.

"I can't forgive my father or my grandfather. I'm completely different," Rainer Hoess, who has devoted his life to fighting anti-Semitism, told reporters.

View gallery A watch tower pictured at the memorial site of the …A watch tower pictured at the memorial site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on t …

- 'Never to forget' -

Several heads of state, including French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko were among a host of leaders to attend Tuesday's service in a large white tent at the entry to the camp.

Russia, the United States and Israel sent lower-ranking representatives. 

Before leaving for Poland, Hollande echoed warnings by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg over violence against Jews in modern-day Europe.

"France is your homeland," Hollande told Jews in Paris, describing as "unbearable" the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France, underscored by the Islamist killing of four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month.

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