Behind loomed a wooden watchtower; to their right, the shattered remains of four large gas chambers; next to those, foundations of the crematoria that devoured 1,500,000 bodies. Much had changed, but it was unmistakable. Fifty years after their liberation by the Red Army, they were back in Auschwitz.
"It is impossible to describe the turmoil inside at returning here," said Clara, 72, who married Dezider after returning to their native Slovakia after the war. "We are standing on the spot where all our relatives and friends had their last glimpse of life."
The Landas, like hundreds of other survivors at Auschwitz yesterday, sought to pay homage to those murdered - and to testify to the unfathomable crimes committed within the camp's wire walls. They had chosen this ceremony because it had been arranged by Jews for Jews, the people who represented the vast majority of victims here. They felt that the official commemorations organised by the Polish authorities failed to take sufficient account of that.
In the mood of profound sorrow and anger, few wanted to dwell on petty tensions between Poles and Jews. But, marking the opening of the two days of official remembrance, the Polish President, Lech Walesa, made an extraordinarily clumsy speech in Cracow. Addressing heads of state and Nobel peace prize winners, Mr Walesa denounced the Nazis' murder of Polish intellectual and spiritual leaders but did not refer to the victims of Auschwitz; nor that 90 per cent were Jews.
There were 150,000 Christian Poles imprisoned at Auschwitz; more than half died. Appalling though this suffering was, it cannot compare with the crime inflicted on Europe's Jews, the "crime of the millennium'', said the German magazine Der Spiegel: a systematic, pseudo-scientific attempt to exterminate a people, stubbornly planned and gruesomely enacted.
The speakers sought desperately to convey the uniqueness of the horrors performed at Auschwitz and warn against attempts to compare them with other acts of barbarism. "A whole race was condemned to die by another and that should never be forgotten," saidArieh Ben-Tov, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Israel after the war.
Roman Herzog, the German President, bowed his head. His presence was appreciated by the Jewish representatives, some comparing it to Willy Brandt's gestures of atonement in the early 1970s. But nothing could touch the depths of their anguish. When a cantor recited the Nazi camps at which six million died, tears formed in hundreds of ageing eyes; when Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, was recited, the tears flowed over hundreds of worn cheeks.
Finally a clear voice came through the loudspeakers. "Although we know that God is merciful, please God do not have mercy on those who have created this place. God of forgiveness, do not forgive those murderers of Jewish children here.
"Do not forgive the murderers and their accomplices. Those who have been here: remember the nocturnal processions of children and more children and more children, frightened, quiet, so quiet and so beautiful.
"If we could simply look at one, our heart would break. Did it not break the heart of the murderers?
"God, merciful God, do not have mercy on those who had no mercy on Jewish children. And if you remember, as we try to remember, then hope is possible that, because of our memory, thanks to our Jewish memory, a better world might be built in which children could be happy-smiling, singing, taking each other's hands and saying to each other `Well, another morning, another day. Another morning, another day, for humankind'.''
The voice belonged to Elie Wiesel, Jewish author, Nobel peace prize winner, and survivor of Auschwitz.
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