By Mary Sibierski
For what may be the last time, elderly Holocaust survivors returned to the 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 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.
"Witnessing the atrocities committed at the entrance gate of Auschwitz was enough to keep me awake until the end of time," Kent said.
"How can I ever forget the smell of burning flesh that permeated the air?"
The mournful wail of the "shofar" - a traditional Jewish ram's horn symbolising freedom - rang out as participants prayed for the victims near the camp's red-brick entrance and its railway lines to the gas chambers.
"We are in a place where civilisation collapsed," Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski told those gathered as he paid respect to the Soviet Red Army troops who liberated the camps.
As night fell, dignitaries and survivors walked along the rails in the shadows of the camp's barbed-wire fence 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, 86, told hundreds of dignitaries and fellow survivors, most of them in their 80s and 90s.
The grandson of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoess was among the attendees.
"I can't forgive my father or my grandfather. I'm completely different," said Rainer Hoess, who is devoted to fighting anti-Semitism.
Earlier on Tuesday (local time), French President Francois Hollande and his Czech counterpart, Milos Zeman, echoed warnings by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg over violence against Jews in modern-day Europe.
"France is your homeland," said Hollande, who later described as "unbearable" the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, underscored by the Islamist killings of four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris earlier this month.
Merkel said it was a "disgrace" that Jews in Germany faced insults, threats and violence, as she joined survivors in Berlin on Monday.
And US President Barack Obama pledged in a statement on Tuesday "never to forget" those murdered by the Nazi regime and voiced concerns over anti-Semitism.
Celina Biniaz, now a smartly-dressed 83-year-old, was only a child when, as one of 1200 Jews, she was placed on Oskar Schindler's famous list and escaped the death camp to work in a nearby factory.
"I so wish they would settle that problem in the Middle East because I so believe that it has a definite impact on what's happening with anti-Semitism all over Europe," Biniaz, who came from California for the ceremonies, said.
Part of Adolf Hitler's genocide plan against European Jews, dubbed the "Final Solution", Auschwitz-Birkenau operated in the occupied southern Polish town of Oswiecim between June 1940 and January 1945.
Of the more than 1.3 million people imprisoned there, about 1.1 million - mainly Jews - perished, either in the gas chambers or by starvation or disease.
Historians estimate that up to 150,000 ethnic Poles were also held at Auschwitz.
European Roma were also targeted for annihilation. Around 23,000 were deported to Auschwitz. Only 2000 survived, according to estimates.
source: newshub archive