As Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated in a panoply of ceremonies around the world, some 300 remaining survivors of the notorious Nazi death camp known as Auschwitz converged at the site of gruesome carnage n Poland on Tuesday. With a palpable sense of melancholy filling the air, they came together to mark the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. On January 27, 1945, during the last months of World War II, Soviet troops advanced from the east and liberated the remaining inmates of the Auschwitz death factory.
The commemoration ceremony was held in a massive tent erected at the infamous entry gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau compound that has the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes Freedom) on its iron fence.
The collective sadness that enveloped the elderly survivors who are now in their 80s and 90s as well as the other attendees emanated not only from the excruciatingly painful memories of this wretched place that are emblazoned in their hearts and minds but from the fact that this commemoration is expected to be the last major anniversary that many of them will be strong enough to attend. This sense of finality is also compounded with a sense of anxiety at the ever burgeoning anti-Semitism and radicalism in Europe and the Middle East.
According to an AP report, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress said, “Jews are targeted in Europe once again because they are Jews.”
Issuing a plea to world leaders to remember the Nazi atrocities and to wage the noble fight for global tolerance was Roman Kent, the President of the International Auschwitz Committee. As he fought back tears, he said, “We do not want our past to be our children’s future. “We survivors cannot; dare not to forget the millions who were murdered for if we were to forget the conscious of mankind would be buried alongside the victims, ” he added.
The noticeable absence amongst the gamut of world leaders who attended the 70th anniversary commemoration was Russian President Vladimir Putin. A deep chill exists between Putin and Poland as a result of tensions over Russia’s role in the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and its support for the rebel forces battling Kiev's troops in eastern Ukraine. Poland has been one of Europe's most vocal countries in condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine, which has plunged the continent into one of the worst East-West crises since the end of the Cold War, according to an AP report.
The tragic irony of Putin’s “no-show” in Poland is the fact that it was the Soviet Red Army that liberated the camp.
Putin did however slam what he called “attempts to rewrite history” at a Moscow ceremony he attended marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Speaking at a Jewish museum in Moscow, Putin said Nazi Germany's crimes including the Holocaust could be neither forgiven nor forgotten, according to an INN report.
"Any attempts to hush up these events, distort, re-write history are unacceptable and immoral," said Putin.
In the run-up to the ceremony Poland angered Moscow when its foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, said it was Ukrainian soldiers - rather than the Soviet army - who liberated the camp. Moscow blasted Warsaw for twisting history for political ends.
INN also reported that Putin has repeatedly condemned the West for what he calls attempts to belittle the Soviet army's role in the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 and to glorify Nazi collaborators in eastern Europe and ex-Soviet republics such as Ukraine.
At the ceremony, Putin also drew parallels with the current Ukraine crisis which has sent Moscow's ties with the West to post-Cold War lows and seen imposition of punishing Western sanctions against Russia.
"We all know how dangerous and destructive are double standards, indifference to and disregard for another man's fate as is the case with the current tragedy in eastern Ukraine," the Kremlin strongman said at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.
Among those who were in attendance at the ceremony in Poland was French President Francois Hollande, whose nation was the recent victim of terrorist attacks that targeted Jews and newspaper satirists. Participants also included the presidents of Germany and Austria, as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a sign of Poland's strong support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, as was reported by the AP.
Before leaving Paris for Poland, French President Francois Hollande condemned the "unbearable" problem of contemporary anti-Semitism, telling Jews at a Holocaust memorial, "France is your homeland."
Earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was a "disgrace" that Jews faced insults, threats and violence. "We've got to fight anti-Semitism and all racism from the outset," she said at a memorial event in Berlin.
Standing in the falling snow among the brave survivors who witnessed the horrors of Auschwitz was celebrated Hollywood film director Steven Spielberg who traveled to Poland with his own delegation to be in attendance. Along with the assistance of other Hollywood luminaries, Spielberg has produced a searing documentary about Auschwitz that preserves the eyewitness testimonies of those who lived through that nightmarish hell. It was at Auschwitz that more than one million people, mainly Jews, were killed during the Second World War.
Spielberg, who won an Oscar for his Holocaust drama Schindler's List, visited the camp for the unveiling of a memorial plaque to those who lost their lives after condemning the rise of anti-Semitism.
Addressing the assemblage, Spielberg said, “If you are a Jew today, in fact if you are any person who believes in the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom in free expression, you know that like many other groups, we are once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance.”
Warning of escalating anti-Semitism, Spielberg said, “There are Facebook pages identifying Jews and their geographic locations with the intention to attack and the growing efforts to banish Jews from Europe.”
“My hope is that the survivors will feel confident that we are renewing their call to remember. That we will not only make known their own identities, but in the process help form a meaningful, collective conscience for the generations to come,” added Spielberg.
The itinerary at the concentration camp included a service inside the tent, as well as the laying of wreaths and the lighting of candles.
The railway tracks that bore Jews in cattle cars from all across Europe to their deaths were lit up gold, with the countryside around it covered in deep snow.
Ahead of the main commemorations, many of the survivors paid a private visit to Auschwitz on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the liberation.
Coming from around the world, some returning for the first time, the survivors paid homage to relatives murdered by Nazi Germany and the millions of other Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
Together, several of them said kaddish, or the Jewish prayer for the dead, next to the infamous 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign.
Celina Biniaz, 83, was among the 1,200 Jews who escaped Auschwitz by being placed on Oskar Schindler's famous list.
As a child she left the death camp to work in a nearby factory run by the German industrialist.
Mrs Biniaz, who travelled from California for the anniversary said: '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.
'The Muslims have been disenfranchised and their young have no hope for the future, so they are desperate and it sounds glamorous for them to join things like ISIS,' she added, referring to the Islamic State jihadist group that has captured swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.
While fellow survivor David Wisnia, said his return to Auschwitz is bringing on nightmares and flashbacks for the first time.
'It's a lifetime ago really,' the 88-year-old explained.
'Last night sleeping... here, I had a horrible dream and woke up and looked out the window and sort of thought that I was back in Birkenau in cell block 14 where I started in 1942.'
As part of Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler's genocide plan against European Jews, dubbed the 'Final Solution', Auschwitz operated in the then-occupied southern Polish town of Oswiecim between June 1940 and January 1945.
Of the more than 1.3 million people imprisoned there, some 1.1 million - mainly European Jews - died, either asphyxiated in the gas chambers or claimed by starvation, exhaustion and disease.
In all, the Nazis killed six million of pre-war Europe's 11 million Jews.