Each year, the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet forces is marked on Jan. 27, but this year, the 60th anniversary has given Poland, site of the most infamous Nazi death camps, a special opportunity for remembrance and reflection.
The anniversary ceremonies, which will be held at the memorial site in Birkenau, will draw an assortment of international dignitaries and leaders. Among those slated to attend are Israeli President Moshe Katsav, Ukrainian President-elect Viktor Yuschenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pope John Paul II, originally from the Polish town of Wadowice, which lies approximately 25 miles from Oswiecim, as Auschwitz is known in Polish, will send French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger -- who was born Jewish -- as his special envoy. In addition to world leaders, the most honored guests will be former prisoners of Auschwitz from many countries.
Jaime Ashworth, director of education at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, said the 60th anniversary is significant because "this might be the last time survivors participate to this extent in Holocaust commemoration ceremonies."
The ceremony in Poland, while among the largest ceremonies marking the liberation of Auschwitz, is not the only Holocaust memorial activity going on around the world. In Italy, scores of educational, cultural and commemorative events were planned around the country. Events also were planned across Germany, including addresses by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and World Jewish Congress President Israel Singer at a memorial service in Berlin, together with former Nazi death camp inmates.
Memorials also are planned in the Czech Republic, Ukraine, England -- where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip will host a reception for Holocaust survivors at St. James Palace -- and Greece, which is marking its first Holocaust anniversary day.
In the United States, Yad Vashem and the Israeli mission to the United Nations are sponsoring a photo exhibit at U.N. headquarters in New York, the first-ever Holocaust exhibit at the world body, and a special session will be held Jan. 24 to commemorate the liberation of the camps, featuring speeches by diplomats. In Washington, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is sponsoring several events, including a documentary recounting an Auschwitz survivor's return visit to the death camp.
The last roll call at Auschwitz was taken on Jan. 17, 1945. The next day, approximately 60,000 prisoners were sent out of the concentration camp on death marches, headed to German camps in the west. Approximately 16,000 people were left behind in Auschwitz II, also called Birkenau.
Today, more than half a million people visit Auschwitz each year.
Poland has a particularly complicated role in Holocaust remembrance. The Nazis chose Poland as the site of many death camps because it borders Germany and was in the center of occupied Europe. More Jews -- approximately 3.5 million -- lived in prewar Poland than in any other country, and Poland lost more Jews than any other nation. Today, Poland is home to anywhere between 5,000 and 20,000 Jews, many unaffiliated with the Jewish community.
Despite Poland's reputation for anti-Semitism, the country today is confronting its history effectively. According to the U.S. State Department's report on global anti-Semitism, released Jan. 5, "surveys over the past several years showed a continuing decline in anti-Semitic sentiment, and avowedly anti-Semitic candidates have won few elections."
The report includes some incidents of vandalism and verbal attacks against Jews but points to a generally favorable trend in governmental support for Jewish projects and communities.
In the post-communist era, many groups have been created to foster Polish-Jewish dialogue and mutual understanding.
In addition, the Polish Jewish community has grown to include Orthodox and progressive congregations, a choir, several publications and many youth groups and lectures.
Still, Auschwitz remains the focal point of Holocaust history and memory in Poland, and Polish schoolchildren visit it every year.
Joanna Kempinska, 24, remembers learning about Auschwitz in high school.
"When you read about it, you just get a sense of it, but when you actually go to see it, you realize someone died here, many people," she said.
The Auschwitz Museum has an extensive educational center, which welcomes visitors and conducts programs year round. Historians, professors and members of the Jewish community from across Poland teach monthly postgraduate teacher-training courses in Jewish history and the history of Auschwitz.
Alicja Bialecka, a member of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum's education department, said that over the six years the program has been offered, about 200 teachers have completed the training of 350 classroom hours. Bialecka said many teachers return to their schools and tell their colleagues about the training, creating more trained teachers and eventually an entire Holocaust curriculum.
The museum's education department is in the middle of a yearlong program for 1,000 students and teachers in the region. The program, "Auschwitz My Home," shows visitors parts of the former concentration camp that usually are not shown, and makes participants think deeply about what it means to live in Poland.
"We want the students and their teachers to feel responsible for being part of this history, but also proud of this responsibility," Bialecka said, noting that Holocaust remembrance has come far in Poland since the early 1990s, immediately after the communist era.
"In the field of education, of Auschwitz, the Second World War and awareness of the suffering of victims of the Nazi regime, consciousness is high, and I am optimistic," she said. Germany, like Poland, has been considering its history for many years. Susanne Meier, a German living in Krakow, remembers hearing about Auschwitz and the Holocaust in school. "You come across the topic in history lessons in Germany, but during the last 10 years, the German attitude toward history is becoming much healthier, something that has nothing to do with guilt," she said.
Meier said that when she thinks about Auschwitz, "there's no way as a human being that it cannot touch you, because it's horrifying. But if it touches me, it has nothing to do with my Germanness. I feel it because I am a feeling person."
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