01-27-2005, 04:08 AM
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Survivors gather with world leaders on Auchwitz anniversary
KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - World leaders and elderly survivors of the Nazi death camp have gathered in Poland to mark the 60th anniversary of its liberation by Soviet troops and remember the victims of the Holocaust.
"I want to say to all people around the world -- this should not happen again," said Anatoly Shapiro, the commander of the troops who first entered Auschwitz.
"I saw the faces of the people we liberated -- they went through hell," he told the opening ceremony on Thursday via a video link from the United States where he lives.
Up to 1.5 million people died in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau, set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War Two as the main centre of their "Final Solution", the genocide of 6 million European Jews.
Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, by the advancing Soviet army whose stunned soldiers released 7,000 emaciated prisoners left behind as the Germans withdrew.
"The snow was falling like today, we were dressed in stripes and some of us had bare feet," said 84-year-old Polish survivor Kazimierz Orlowski. "These were horrible times."
World leaders along with scores of survivors were due to gather at the camp in southern Poland, some 70 km (44 miles) from the city of Krakow, amid heavy snow and in sub-zero temperatures. They were to light candles at the camp's main extermination centre, Birkenau, later on Thursday.
"These commemorations are intended to promote knowledge of Auschwitz as widely as possible and bring the truth about the camps to the younger generation," Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told Polish state radio.
More than 30 heads of state were to join the ceremonies, including Israeli President Moshe Katsav, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his German and French counterparts.
"The story of the camps reminds us that evil is real and must be called by its name and confronted," Cheney told a gathering in Krakow.
"We are reminded that anti-Semitism may begin with words but rarely stops with words and the message of intolerance and hatred must be opposed before it turns into acts of horror."
The guilt many European nations still feel at either complicity or indifference during the Holocaust has prompted fresh vows of "never again" from their leaders.
But such assurances come against a background of rising anti-Semitism, recent genocides in Africa and Bosnia and the fading memory of the horrors of World War Two as the war-scarred generation passes away.
Set up in 1940 by the occupying Nazis, Auschwitz was initially a labour camp for Polish prisoners but gradually grew into a death factory for European Jews shipped there from around Europe and Russia.
At its peak the camp could hold 400,000 people, with thousands killed in gas chambers on arrival after travelling in cattle trains for days without food or water.
More than one million Jews were killed but Gypsies, Poles, Russians also died in the camp. Hundreds were subjected to medical experiments by Nazi doctors trying to prove theories of Aryan supremacy.
© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.