World leaders will gather at Auschwitz in southern Poland Thursday for the biggest ever commemoration of the darkest episode of Europe's 20th century, the industrial murder at the camp of up to 1.5 million people, mainly Jews, by Nazi Germany. Princes and presidents, surviving victims and relatives of the dead, Red Army veterans who freed the camp in January 1945, schoolchildren and religious leaders will all travel to the bleak, sprawling concentration camp, which has come to symbolize the much broader Holocaust, to mark the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
Thursday's ceremonies at Auschwitz and at the nearby city of Krakow kick off a year of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. These 12 months will in many respects also be a year of closure, since the various events will be the last to be attended by direct witnesses of the war years.
"We are on the brink of that moment when this terrible event will change -- from memory to history," Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, said in New York on Monday at the U.N.'s first special General Assembly session dedicated to recalling the liberation of the Nazi death camps. "The number of survivors shrinks all the time," Shalom added.
The presidents of Israel, Germany, Poland, Russia and France will be among 30 heads of state converging on the town of Oswiecim (the Polish town better known by its German name of Auschwitz). Europe's royal houses will also be well represented. Washington is sending Vice President Dick Cheney, and former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter are also expected to attend. Britain is sending Prince Edward and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to the event, a level of representation that has raised eyebrows among some organizers and diplomats.
The Holocaust, the unique attempt to destroy European Jewry through the organized mass murder of 6 million people, was largely accomplished in eastern Europe in the space between Germany and Russia, although it also claimed countless thousands of western European victims. The deliberate choice of eastern Europe as the killing field and the West's indifference to the slaughter has been a theme this week of the speeches and ceremonies recalling the wickedness of the 1940s. "The crime was meant to remain a secret," said Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish MEP and former foreign minister. "Nazi Germany chose Poland as the place of the massacre of European Jews ... to conceal their crime from the world by committing it far from western Europe."
Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Prize winner who is to speak at Thursday's events, said the 60th anniversary should remember "this shameful indifference." "Our tragedy might have been avoided, its scope surely diminished," had Britain and the United States been more emphatic in initially resisting Adolf Hitler and more generous in their treatment of Jewish refugees, he said.
Some of the leaders attending have painful personal connections with the camp. Pope John Paul, a former archbishop of the nearby city of Krakow, is being represented by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish convert to Catholicism whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz. Also present will be Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yushchenko, whose father, a Red Army soldier, was also interned at the camp.
Recent events, notably the distasteful pictures of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform at a party earlier this month, and the outrage provoked by German neo-Nazi members walking out of the state parliament of Saxony during a minute's silence for Holocaust victims last week, have drawn attention to the problem of increasing amnesia about the genocide.
Following his attendance at the D-day commemorations in France last year, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is to go to Moscow in May for the staging of the events marking Russia's victory over Nazi Germany, while President Horst Koehler will be at Auschwitz Thursday.