January 28, 1995 in Nation/World

Never Again Delegates From 32 Nations Commemorate Auschwitz Liberation And Make A Vow

Rick Atkinson Washington Post

Political and religious leaders from 32 nations gathered at Auschwitz Friday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death camp’s liberation and to affirm a common vow: Never again.

On a morning of bitter cold and sporadic snow flurries, thousands of candles flickered among the ruins of the Nazi camp in memory of at least 1.1 million victims who perished here before advancing Soviet troops arrived in January 1945.

“Whole nations, the Jews and the Gypsies, were supposed to be exterminated here together with others, above all, us Poles,” Polish President Lech Walesa said during a ceremony attended by an estimated 5,000 people. “In the name of an insane ideology, children were murdered. Man denied his humanity by putting other human beings to death.”

The heads of national delegations, including about 20 presidents and monarchs, signed a joint declaration describing Auschwitz as “the biggest crime in history. … We ask all nations and people to stop all fanaticism and violence. No more war and killing.”

Five sets of prayers - Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Muslim - were recited as mourners bowed their heads and hunched their shoulders against the icy wind. A siren, similar to the one that once warned of attempted escapes, screamed for three minutes to honor the dead.

Polish army officers placed wreaths in front of memorial plaques, while a somber voice read a long list of male and female first names, symbolizing the innocent dead.

Some Jewish leaders boycotted the ceremony to protest what they argued was an overzealous effort to make the commemoration ecumenical. But for the most part, the passions that have raged in recent weeks appeared to subside in a somber mood of collective sorrow. On Thursday, Jewish groups held a separate memorial service at the camp to underscore the fact that 90 percent of all Auschwitz victims were Jews.

Walesa offered a note of conciliation when he opened Friday’s ceremony by explicitly stressing Jewish suffering. After leading his distinguished guests into the camp beneath the gate that still bears the infamous inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Make You Free”), the Polish president delivered a short homily outside the execution courtyard of Block 11.

“The road we have walked just now … is the road of the martyrdom of nations, especially the Jewish nation,” Walesa said. “We walked it in a feeling of unity and responsibility. This journey not only echoes the experience of millions, it should also be a lesson for millions.”

The U.S. delegation was headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, who described himself as a man who half a century ago “had no name, no hope, no future and was known only by his number.”

“In this place of darkness and malediction … close your eyes and look, and you will see what we have seen,” Wiesel commanded. “Close your eyes, and here heaven and earth are on fire.

“We ask ourselves, what is the lesson? The answer, I believe, is not to yield to hatred - to fight fanaticism and the violence and the terror,” he added. “Let there be a stop to violence and terror in lands where people kill one another.”

The German delegation included President Roman Herzog, who attended both ceremonies Friday and Thursday as an observer but was not among the invited speakers. In Bonn, Chancellor Helmut Kohl called Auschwitz “the darkest and most terrible chapter in German history.”

The 50th anniversary dominated both political dialogue and media commentary in Germany this week, as Germans found themselves grappling again with a commemoration that underscored the depravity of the Third Reich.

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