Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, aging survivors and dignitaries gather at the site synonymous with the Holocaust on Tuesday to honor victims and sound the alarm over a fresh wave of anti-Semitism.
On the eve of the landmark event, which is expected to draw several heads of state, a leading Jewish organization was echoed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg in highlighting violence against Jews in modern-day Europe.
Europe is “close to” a new exodus of Jews, European Jewish Congress chief Moshe Kantor warned at a Holocaust forum in the Czech capital Prague.
“Jihadism is very close to Nazism. One could even say that they are two faces of the same evil,” he added.
Merkel said it was a “disgrace” that Jews in Germany faced insults, threats or violence, as she joined survivors Monday in Berlin observing 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army.
Spielberg pointed to what he termed “the growing effort to banish Jews from Europe” amid a rise in anti-Semitism on the continent underscored by the deadly Islamist attack on a Jewish kosher grocery in Paris earlier this month.
Underscoring the trend, France’s main Jewish agency CRIF released figures on Tuesday that showed anti-Semitic acts in the country, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, doubling in 2014 to 851, compared to 423 the previous year.
Ahead of Tuesday’s ceremonies, Spielberg — who won an Oscar for the Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” and who has also videotaped the testimony of 58,000 survivors — met with hundreds of them, mostly in their nineties, in Krakow, southern Poland.
Royals in attendance
Royals from Belgium and The Netherlands are expected to be in attendance, as are more than a dozen presidents and prime ministers from across the globe.
French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko are to participate, but Russia, the United States and Israel have chosen to send lower-ranking representatives.
The Archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz — a former aide to Saint Pope John Paul II — will be there on behalf of the Holy See.
Also attending is Celina Biniaz, elegant at 83, who was among the 1,200 Jews who escaped Auschwitz by being placed on Oskar Schindler’s famous list.
As a child she left the death camp to work in a nearby factory run by the German industrialist.
“I so wish they would settle that problem in the Middle East because I so believe that it has a definite impact on what’s happening with anti-Semitism all over Europe,” Biniaz, who came from California for the ceremonies, told AFP.
“The Muslims have been disenfranchised and their young have no hope for the future, so they are desperate and it sounds glamorous for them to join things like ISIS,” she said, referring to the Islamic State jihadist group that has captured swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq.
‘A bomb would have helped’
For survivor David Wisnia, his return to Auschwitz is bringing on nightmares and flashbacks for the first time.
“It’s a lifetime ago really,” the 88-year-old said.
“Last night sleeping … here, I had a horrible dream and woke up and looked out the window and sort of thought that I was back in Birkenau in cell block 14 where I started in 1942,” he told journalists ahead of Tuesday’s ceremonies.
Part of Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler’s genocide plan against European Jews, dubbed the “Final Solution”, Auschwitz-Birkenau operated in the then-occupied southern Polish town of Oswiecim between June 1940 and January 1945.
Of the more than 1.3 million people imprisoned there, some 1.1 million — mainly European Jews — perished, either asphyxiated in the gas chambers or claimed by starvation, exhaustion and disease.
In all, the Nazis killed six million of pre-war Europe’s 11 million Jews.
Historical records show that by 1942, the Polish resistance was providing Allied powers and Jewish community leaders in the US with the first detailed eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust.
But inexplicably, Washington and London failed to act against the six death camps the Nazis set up in occupied Poland.
“The debate as to why the Allies did not bomb the supply lines to Auschwitz remains unresolved,” survivor Marcel Tuchman told AFP in Krakow Monday.
“Whether it was a sinister reason behind it or whether it was just tactical, in that they didn’t want to divert their air force remains unclear,” the 93-year-old said. “A little bomb in the proper place, it would have really helped.”
Watch this video report posted online by ITN: