Survivors of the Holocaust return to Auschwitz

Elderly prisoners who lived to tell their tale, their liberators and world leaders mark the end of the horror, 60 years on
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The last major gathering of Holocaust survivors is to be held in a bleak corner of southern Poland this week as the world marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp.

The last major gathering of Holocaust survivors is to be held in a bleak corner of southern Poland this week as the world marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp.

The survivors are already making their way to nearby Krakow. Some are in wheelchairs, some are blind; all bear traces of the physical and psychological trauma from the camp as well as signs of their advanced age. Even the younger adults among the survivors liberated are now in their eighties. Not many will see the 70th anniversary.

Britain's representatives at the Auschwitz ceremony hope that their presence will repair some of the damage done to the country's reputation by the photograph, reproduced around the world, of Prince Harry dressed in Nazi regalia. After that furore, it was announced that the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, would lead the delegation on Thursday. The Foreign Office denies this is a last-minute change of plan.

Denis MacShane, a junior foreign minister, will also be there. Mr MacShane's Polish father was seriously injured fighting the invading German army in 1939. The Royal Family will be represented by the Queen's youngest son, the Earl of Wessex, who will have lunch with former prisoners of war. There will also be a small ceremony on Thursday morning, when the Armed Forces minister Ivor Caplin will unveil a plaque honouring 38 British prisoners of war who died in Auschwitz.

President Horst Köhler of Germany, the French President, Jacques Chirac, and Russian President, Vladimir Putin, will be among some 30 other dignitaries joining 2,000 Holocaust survivors and Red Army veterans at Auschwitz to remember the genocide at the largest of all the Nazi death camps. Organisers say space will be limited, but the camp is vast, constructed for mass murder on an industrial scale. At its peak SS guards at Auschwitz gassed up to 8,000 prisoners every day, most of them Jewish. At least 1,100,000 prisoners died there.

Ceremonies on Thursday afternoon will include ecumenical and Jewish memorial prayers, speeches by, among others, the Israeli President, Mosche Katsav, and Mr Köhler, as well as an address from the former Auschwitz prisoner and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. Pope John Paul II is due to send a message.

The sombre ceremony,planned by the European Jewish Congress, Jerusalem-based Holocaust Memorial Authority, Yad Vashem, and the Polish Ministry of Culture, will doubtless do justice to the events of over half a century ago. But, with few witnesses still alive, remembering the Holocaust remains a task fraught with difficulty.

"There is no definitive relationship to Auschwitz," German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler said last week. "Each new generation must find its own relationship, between the dangers of trivialisation and displacement."

Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, Germany may already be facing such dangers. The University of Bielefeld recently found that 62 per cent of Germans were "sick of all the harping on about German crimes against the Jews", preferring to see their Nazi past firmly consigned to the history books. Many appear to feel that in a country where wearing a Nazi uniform can land you in jail, where most children will visit a concentration camp, and where one magazine accused its countrymen of "memorial madness", enough has been done to confront Germany's Nazi past: it is time to move on.

Officially, such sentiments are strictly taboo. Although he is not due in Poland this week, the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, will deliver the key address on Thursday at a special televised event in Berlin attended by Israeli representatives. Several German broadcasters have already cleared their schedules to make way for special Holocaust programming.

Later this year, Mr Schröder, who was the first German Chancellor to take part in D-Day commemorations, is expected to visit Moscow to mark the Red Army's struggle against Nazi troops.

In May, he will unveil Berlin's new memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, a massive, undulating field of concrete slabs, by the Brandenburg Gate. The underground information centre will include haunting audio biographies of, in turn, all Jews murdered by Nazis.

In Poland, in 1945, Ukrainian infantryman Yakov Vinnichenko was one of the first Red Army soldiers inside Auschwitz. "Some tried to kiss us, but you didn't want to get infected," Mr Vinnichenko recalls of the 7,000 inmates he found there. At 79, that day remains, he says, "impossible to describe".

Chancellor Schröder continues to search for a description. Last December, he invited more than 100 Berlin schoolchildren to a reading by Auschwitz survivor Sioma Zubicky. "Mr Zubicky has come back to Germany," he said, "so that we can learn that we all carry the responsibility for one thing: 'Never again.'"

Prejudice against Jews 'on the rise in Europe'

By Sophie Goodchild, Home Affairs Correspondent

Anti-Semitism in Britain and Europe is worse than 20 years ago and public figures are partly to blame, according to a leading academic.

Professor Peter Pulzer, an expert in Jewish history, says politicians and the media are responsible for reinforcing "pre-Holocaust stereotypes" when referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"We are not back in the 1930s, but at a time when anti-Semitism should have been dispersed the trend has reversed direction. One now has to worry about it again in a way that 10 or 20 years ago you did not," said the Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Oxford and fellow of All Souls College.

The historian will speak today at a special conference in London, organised by the Leo Baeck Institute and the Wiener Library, to explore the reasons for anti-Jewish attitudes.

Professor Pulzer, author of The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, said he was concerned about the alarming rise in "soft" anti-Semitism since the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, with MPs and writers using "coded" language to express prejudiced views.

"Some of the coded allusions that you find in coverage of that particular issue and the sort of things public figures say do tend to reinforce traditional unfavourable images of Jews. It's not explicit or violent but it's subtle and it's coded," said the professor.

Meanwhile, in Stamford Hill, north London, there have been at least eight attacks on Charedi Jews in the past six weeks.