'If we don't watch it, one day you wake up and it's too late.'
Survivors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp recalled their suffering as they marked the 75th anniversary of its liberation, returning to the place where they lost entire families and warning about the ominous growth of anti-Semitism and hatred in the world.
"We have with us the last living survivors, the last among those who saw the Holocaust with their own eyes," Polish President Andrzej Duda told the dignitaries at the commemoration, which included the German president as well as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders.
"The magnitude of the crime perpetrated in this place is terrifying but we must not look away from it and we must never forget it," Duda said.
About 200 camp survivors attended, many of them elderly Jews and non-Jews who have traveled from Israel, the United States, Australia, Peru, Russia, Slovenia, and elsewhere. Many lost parents and grandparents in Auschwitz or other Nazi death camps, but were joined by children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.
They gathered under an enormous, heated tent straddling the train tracks that had transported people to Birkenau, the part of the vast complex where most of the murdered Jews were killed in gas chambers and then cremated. Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet army on Jan. 27, 1945.
Jewish survivors told their stories, as did a Sinti, or Gypsy, woman who is now blind and delivered a few words that she said were "spoken from the heart" before having someone else read them.
Most of the 1.1 million people murdered by the Nazi German forces at the camp were Jews, but other Poles, Russians, and Roma were imprisoned there. Polish survivors walked with Duda through the camp's gate early Monday wearing striped scarves that recalled the prison garb they wore more than 75 years ago.
World leaders gathered in Jerusalem last week to mark the anniversary in what many saw as a competing observance. Among them were Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Britain’s Prince Charles.
Politics intruded on that event, with Duda boycotting it in protest after Putin claimed that Poland played a role in triggering World War II. Duda had wanted a chance to speak before or after Putin to defend his nation’s record in face of those false accusations, but he was not given a speaking slot in Jerusalem.
Those claims comes as many countries across Eastern Europe have in recent years been mythologizing their own people's behavior during the war and suppressing knowledge of wrongdoing, something Poland's government, too, has been criticized for.
Duda said Monday he felt that in Jerusalem, "Polish participation in the epic fight against the Nazis was ignored."
Monday's commemoration gave him a chance to defend his nation, and he used it to recall how Poland was invaded and occupied, losing 6 million of its citizens in the war, half of them Jews. He recalled how Poland fought the Germans on several fronts, warned the world in vain about the genocide of the Jews, and for decades has been a responsible custodian of Auschwitz and other sites of the German atrocities.
"Distorting the history of World War II, denying the crimes of genocide and negating the Holocaust as well as an instrumental use of the Auschwitz for whatever purposes is tantamount to desecration of the memory of the victims," Duda said. "Truth about the Holocaust must not die."
Among others attending the observances at Auschwitz, which is located in southern Poland, a region under German occupation during the war, were German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
Rivlin recalled the strong connection that Israel shares with Poland, which welcomed Jews for centuries. It became home to Europe's largest population of Jews — and later the center of Germany's destruction of that community.
"The glorious history of the Jews in Poland, the prosperity of which the Jewish community has enjoyed throughout history, along with the difficult events that have taken place on this earth, connect the Jewish people and the State of Israel, inextricably, with Poland and the Polish people," Rivlin said while standing alongside Duda at a news conference.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan was guided through the camp by museum director Piotr Cywinski and viewed a plaque that includes the name of his city after it recently pledged a contribution of 300,000 pounds ($391,000) for the site's preservation.
Organizers of the event in Poland, the Auschwitz-Birkenau state memorial museum, and the World Jewish Congress, have sought to keep the spotlight on survivors.
On the eve of the commemorations, survivors, many leaning on their children and grandchildren for support, walked through the place where they had been brought in on cattle cars and suffered hunger and illness and came close to death. They said they were there to remember, to share their histories with others, and to make a gesture of defiance toward those who had sought their destruction.
For some, it is also the burial ground for their parents and grandparents, and they said they would say kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
"I have no graves to go to and I know my parents were murdered here and burned. So this is how I pay homage to them," said Yvonne Engelman, a 92-year-old Australian who was joined by three more generations now scattered around the globe.
She recalled being brought in from a ghetto in what was then Czechoslovakia by cattle car, being stripped of her clothes, shaved and put in a gas chamber. By some miracle, the gas chamber that day did not work, and she later survived slave labor and a death march.
A 96-year-old survivor, Jeanette Spiegel, was 20 when she was brought to Auschwitz, where she spent nine months. Today she lives in New York and is fearful of rising anti-Semitic violence in the United States.
"I think they pick on the Jews because we are such a small minority and it is easy to pick on us," she said, fighting back tears. "Young people should understand that nothing is for sure, that some terrible things can happen and they have to be very careful. And that, God forbid, what happened to the Jewish people then should never be repeated."
"We would like that the next generation know what we went through, and it should never happen again," said 91-year-old David Marks, his voice cracking. He lost 35 relatives after they all arrived in Auschwitz from their village in Romania.
"A dictator doesn't come up from one day to the other," Marks said, saying it happens in "micro steps."
"If we don't watch it, one day you wake up and it's too late," he added.
In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron paid his respects at the city’s Shoah Memorial and warned about rising hate crimes in France, which increased 27% last year.
"That anti-Semitism is coming back is not the Jewish people's problem: It's all our problem — it's the nation's problem," Macron said.