As candles flickered in the snowy, winter gloom, world leaders and Auschwitz survivors Thursday remembered victims of the Holocaust on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp.
The ceremony, which opened with the sound of an approaching train, was held on the spot where new arrivals at the vast camp were subject to "selection" — meaning a few were deemed able to work, while most were taken immediately to gas chambers.
"For a former inmate of Auschwitz, it is an unimaginable and overwhelming emotion to be able to speak in this cemetery without graves, the largest one in the history of Europe," said Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a survivor who later became Poland's foreign minister.
When he arrived in 1940, he recalled, "I never imagined I would outlive Hitler or survive World War II."
Girl Scouts brought blankets to elderly survivors sitting in the freezing cold and heavy snowfall.
Presidents Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Moshe Katsav of Israel also attended the ceremony. German President Horst Koehler was present, but plans called for him to remain silent in token acknowledgment of his country's role as perpetrator of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews died during World War II.
Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz and the neighboring camp at Birkenau, or Brzezinka in Polish, on Jan. 27, 1945. Some 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, had died at the two camps from gassing, starvation, exhaustion, beatings and disease.
Other victims included Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.
Earlier in Krakow, Vice President Dick Cheney noted that it did not happen in some far-off place but "in the heart of the civilized world."
"The story of the camps shows that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted," he said.
Putin won long applause when he acknowledged that anti-Semitism and xenophobia had surfaced in Russia, tackling an issue that the Kremlin had long failed to confront directly. Putin said many in the world should be ashamed of new manifestations of anti-Semitism six decades after the defeat of fascism.
"Even in our country, in Russia, which did more than any to combat fascism ... we sometimes unfortunately see manifestations of this problem and I, too, am ashamed of that," Putin said.
Survivor Franciszek Jozefiak, 80, said efforts to educate new generations about the Holocaust should be strengthened.
"Today I'm remembering my father, gassed here. I'm remembering the atrocious things they did to us here," said Jozefiak, who is from Krakow. "I drank water from a dirty pool and, to punish me, an SS man jumped on my arm and broke it and jumped on my chest and broke two ribs."
One day, he said, the Nazi guards lined them up and told some to go right, others left. He went left and his father went right and was taken to the gas chamber.
"The message today is: No more Auschwitz," Jozefiak said. "But the world has learned nothing so far — you see they are fighting and killing each other everywhere in the world.
"Today they are saying a lot because of the anniversary, but tomorrow they will forget," he warned.
Earlier, at a youth forum in Krakow, participants applauded several surviving Soviet soldiers awarded for liberating the camp, and saw a video message from 92-year-old Maj. Anatoly Shapiro, who commanded the Soviet unit that captured Auschwitz. He was too sick to travel from his home in New York.
"I would like to say to all the people on the earth: Unite, and do not permit this evil that was committed," Shapiro said in the recorded greeting. "This should never be repeated, ever."
In Brussels, members of the European Parliament stood in a minute of silence to mark the anniversary.