Survivors return to Auschwitz 75 years after liberation

Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered Monday for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.

In all, more than 200 survivors of the camp are expected, many of them elderly Jews who have traveled far from homes in Israel, the United States, Australia, Peru, Russia, Slovenia and elsewhere. Many lost parents and grandparents in Auschwitz or other Nazi death camps, but today were being joined in their journey back by children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Most of the 1.1 million people murdered by the Nazi German forces were Jewish, but among those imprisoned there were also Poles and Russians, and they will also be among those at a commemoration Monday led by Polish President Andrzej Duda and the head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder.

Asuchwitz was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945.

World leaders gathered in Jerusalem last week to mark the anniversary in what many saw as a competing observance. Among them were Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.

Politics intruded on that event, with Duda boycotting it in protest after Putin claimed that Poland played a role in triggering World War II. Duda had wanted a chance to speak before or after Putin to defend his nation’s record in face of those false accusations, but he was not giving a speaking slot in Jerusalem.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected at the event at Auschwitz, which is located in southern Poland, a region under German occupation during the war.

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Auschwitz survivors return 75 years after liberation
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Auschwitz survivors return 75 years after liberation
Poland's President Andrzej Duda walks along with survivors through the gates of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp to attend the 75th anniversary of its liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Survivors carry a wreath at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
A survivor attends commemorations at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Survivors attend commemorations at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
People arrive for commemorations at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Survivors carry a wreath at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Survivors carry a wreath at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Poland's President Andrzej Duda walks along with survivors through the gates of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp gathered for commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of the camp, using the testimony of survivors to warn about the signs of rising anti-Semitism and hatred in the world today.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Survivors and their relatives walk through the gates of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp to attend the 75th anniversary of its liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
OSWIECIM, POLAND - JANUARY 27: Holocaust survivors lay wreaths and light candles under the Death Wall at the Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during the 75th Anniversary of Auschwitz Liberation in Oswiecim, Poland on January 27, 2020. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A Holocaust survivor cries as he pays his respect at the death wall at the memorial site of the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz during ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2020. - More than 200 survivors are to come from across the globe to the camp the Nazis built in Oswiecim in then-occupied Poland, to share their testimony as a stark warning amid a recent surge of anti-semitic attacks on both sides of the Atlantic. (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP) (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
A Holocaust survivor cries as he pays his respect at the death wall at the memorial site of the former German Nazi death camp Auschwitz during ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp's liberation in Oswiecim, Poland, on January 27, 2020. - More than 200 survivors are to come from across the globe to the camp the Nazis built in Oswiecim in then-occupied Poland, to share their testimony as a stark warning amid a recent surge of anti-semitic attacks on both sides of the Atlantic. (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP) (Photo by JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
OSWIECIM, POLAND - JANUARY 27, 2020: Poland's President Andrzej Duda attends a ceremony to lay flowers at the Death Wall at the former Auschwitz concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany during WWII. Over a million Jews, as well as Soviet and Polish prisoners, were killed in the camp's gas chambers to be burnt in crematoria. Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on 27 January 1945; in 1947, the Polish government founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of the camp, which in 1979 was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. In 2005, January 27 was named International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the General Assembly of the United Nations. Natalia Fedosenko/TASS (Photo by Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images)
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Organizers of the event in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau state memorial museum and the World Jewish Congress, have sought to keep the spotlight on survivors.

“This is about survivors. It’s not about politics,” Lauder said Sunday as he went to the death camp with several survivors.

Lauder warned that leaders must do more to fight anti-Semitism, including by passing new laws to fight it.

On the eve of the commemorations, survivors, many leaning on their children and grandchildren for support, walked through the place where they had been brought in on cattle cars and suffered hunger, illness and near death. They said they were there to remember, to share their histories with others, and to make a gesture of defiance toward those who had sought their destruction.

For some, it is also the burial ground for their parents and grandparents, and they will be saying kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

“I have no graves to go to and I know my parents were murdered here and burned. So this is how I pay homage to them,” said Yvonne Engelman, a 92-year-old who came from Australia, joined by three more generations now scattered around the globe.

She recalled being brought in from a ghetto in Czechoslovakia by cattle car, being stripped of her clothes, shaved and put in a gas chamber. By some miracle, the gas chamber that day did not work, and she went on to survive slave labor and a death march.

A 96-year-old survivor, Jeanette Spiegel, was 20 when she was brought to Auschwitz, where she spent nine months. Today she lives in New York City and is fearful of rising anti-Semitic violence in the United States.

“I think they pick on the Jews because we are such a small minority and it is easy to pick on us,” she said, fighting back tears. “Young people should understand that nothing is for sure, that some terrible things can happen and they have to be very careful. And that, God forbid, what happened to the Jewish people then should never be repeated.”

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