The presidents of Israel and Poland called on Monday for greater efforts to combat anti-Semitism as the world marked 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp amid concerns over a resurgence of anti-Jewish prejudice.
More than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, perished in the camp’s gas chambers or from starvation, cold and disease.
“Our duty is to fight anti-Semitism, racism and fascist nostalgia, those sick evils that … threaten to eat away at the foundations of our democracies,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said at a venue near the former camp, which is now a museum.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, who did not attend Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial last Thursday because he was not allowed to speak, thanked Rivlin for his presence at Auschwitz.
Set up by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland in 1940, at first to house Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz became the largest of the extermination centers where Adolf Hitler’s plan to kill all Jews – the “Final Solution” – was put into practice.
It was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945.
Returning to the site where her relatives were murdered, 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Yvonne Engelman, who now lives in Australia, recalled the horrors of the camp.
“We could hear children coughing, crying, choking from the gas and also the smell of human flesh and the great fear we experienced that maybe you will be the next victim,” she said.
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During a somber ceremony at the gate to the camp, Duda spoke of the chilling efficiency of the Nazis’ genocidal plan, which included vast crematoria to burn the bodies of victims.
“For years the factory of death operated at full capacity. Smoke was rising from the chimneys, the transports were rolling. People walked and walked in their thousands. To meet their death,” he told a gathering that included several dozen aging survivors, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe.
Studies show that anti-Semitic sentiment persists, especially in Europe, despite the scale of the Nazi atrocities, the powerful testimony of survivors and the number of films, books and exhibitions chronicling the Holocaust.