In icy wind and snow, they stood to attention as the sinister siren rang again. They bowed their heads as prayers of remembrance were recited. They lit candles, placing them in the remains of gas chambers and on railway tracks along which so many were ushered to their deaths.
The ceremony, attended by several heads of state and senior officials from the more than 20 countries whose nationals were murdered at Auschwitz, had been fraught with controversy.The Polish President, Lech Walesa, had been widely criticised by Jewish groups for failing to make it clear in the official commemorations - given an ecumenical flavour - that Jews made up the overwhelming number of victims.
Yesterday he sought to make partial amends. In a short address at the "Wall of Death", where thousands were shot, he made a late addition to his speech, acknowledging publicly for the first time that Jews had been singled out for suffering.
Later, at nearby Birkenau where most gassings took place, he spoke of "whole nations" condemned to extermination by the Nazis, singling out "the Jews and the Gypsies", but also seeing fit to refer to "others - above all the Poles".
The real compromise of the day came in a carefully worded appeal to the world against fanaticism, racism and anti-Semitism, signed by all the official delegations.They acknowledged what happened at Auschwitz represented the "greatest crime committed in history ... the `final solution', the crime against Jews, mainly Jews, but also other nations". Crucially, they added that, although "on Polish soil", Auschwitz was not created "by Polish hands".
Much of this week's wrangling has centred on Jewish accusations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust and, on the Polish side, the feeling that the suffering of Poles - 75,000 of whom died in Auschwitz - has never been properly acknowledged. n The row disgusted survivors. "We thought this day was going to be for us - the former prisoners," Tadeusz Zaleski said. "But, instead, it has all been about politics."
The issues have opened up wounds dating back beyond the Second World War and revealed old scores never settled. Even today, the subject of anti-Semitism in Poland remains a strict taboo.
But in memory of all those victims, in memory of the scale of the horror, a consensus had to be found; a message sent out. As on Thursday, at a Jewish ceremony arranged at the camp in protest over the official programme, the most eloquent words were spoken by Elie Wiesel, a Jewish Auschwitz survivor and a Nobel peace prize winner.
"Close your eyes and you will see heaven and earth on fire here. Close your eyes and listen to the silent screams that terrify mothers, listen to the prayers of anguished old men and women, listen to the tears of children ... It is true that not all the victims were Jews. But all the Jews were victims."
He spoke near the spot at which cattle lorries bearing victims destined for the gas chambers and crematoria emptied loads before returning for more; the spot at which countless children lost mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters; the spot which throughout the world has become synonymous with absolute evil. For the hundreds of survivors gathered in the cold to mourn that, ultimately, was the message they wanted to convey: this really was a place unique in the history of horror, never to be explained away as simply one among many, to be generalised into meaninglessness; never to fall prey to the revisionist school that denies gassings took place. "We, the survivors, are the testimony to what really happened here," said Arieh Ben-Tov, a Polish Jew whowent to Israel after the war. "While we still live, we can and must tell the world over and over again. But when we are gone, the world must never forget."
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