Auschwitz survivors pay homage as world remembers Holocaust
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Auschwitz survivors pay homage as world remembers Holocaust

Ceremonies held at site of death camp in Poland 74 years after its liberation, but knowledge of Nazi atrocities during World War II is declining

Former prisoners and their guests arrive for the ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)
Former prisoners and their guests arrive for the ceremony marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday amid a revival of hate-inspired violence and signs that younger generations know less and less about the genocide of Jews, Roma and others by Nazi Germany during World War II.

As survivors of Auschwitz marked the 74th anniversary of the notorious death camp’s liberation, a far-right activist who served time in prison for burning an effigy of a Jew placed a wreath there with about 50 other Polish nationalists to protest the official observances.

Piotr Rybak said the group opposes the annual ceremony at Auschwitz to mark the camp’s liberation by the Soviet army, the event that gave rise to the international January 27 remembrance. Rybak claimed it glorifies the one million Jewish victims killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death complex and discounts the 70,000 Poles killed there.

“It’s time to fight against Jewry and free Poland from them!” Rybak said as he marched to the site, according to a report by Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on its website.

A Polish far-right activist, Piotr Rybak,right, and other nationalists gather outside the memorial site of Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Rybak’s claim is incorrect. The ceremony at the state-run memorial site paid homage Sunday, as it does every year, to all of the camp’s victims, both Jews and gentiles, while Christian and Jewish religious leaders recited a prayer in unison together.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also stressed that the Third Reich targeted Poles as well as Jews.

Since last year’s observances, an 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was fatally stabbed in Paris and 11 Jews were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat services, the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

Human Rights First, a US organization, recalled those killings and warned that “today’s threats do not come solely from the fringe.”

“In places such as Hungary and Poland, once proudly democratic nations, government leaders are traveling the road to authoritarianism,” said Ira Forman, the group’s senior adviser for combating anti-Semitism. “As they do so, they are distorting history to spin a fable about their nations and the Holocaust.”

Former Auschwitz prisoners placed flowers early Sunday at an execution wall at Auschwitz, paying homage before the arrival of the nationalists at the same spot. They wore striped scarves that recalled their uniforms, some with the red letter “P,” the symbol the Germans used to mark them as Poles.

Former prisoners place candles and flowers at the Death Wall marking the 74th anniversary of the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, Sunday, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

Early in World War II, most prisoners were Poles, rounded up by the occupying German forces. Later, Auschwitz was transformed into a mass killing site for Jews, Roma and others, operating until the liberation by Soviet forces on January 27, 1945.

In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned in an op-ed in the weekly Welt am Sonntag that across Europe populists are propagating nationalism and “far-right provocateurs are trying to downplay the Holocaust.”

“We shall never forget. We shall never be indifferent. We must stand up for our liberal democracy,” Maas wrote.

Over the past year, Germany has seen a rising number of often violent attacks against Jews carried out by neo-Nazis and Muslims, prompting the government to appoint a commissioner against anti-Semitism and to start funding a national registration office for anti-Semitic hate crimes.

Survivors of Auschwitz arrive at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau walk to place candles on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The appearance by nationalists at Auschwitz comes amid a surge of right-wing extremism in Poland and elsewhere in the West. It is fed by a broader grievance many Poles have that their suffering during the war at German hands is little known abroad while there is greater knowledge of the Jewish tragedy.

However recent surveys show that knowledge of the atrocities during World War II is declining generally.

A new study released in recent days by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Azrieli Foundation found that 52 percent of millennials in Canada cannot name even one concentration camp or ghetto and 62% of millennials did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Its findings were similar to a similar study carried out a year before in the United States.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, left, and deputy Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, right,place candles at the Monument to the Victims at the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, during on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Oswiecim, Poland, January 27, 2019. (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

In Britain, a new poll by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust found that one in 20 adults in Britain do not believe the Holocaust took place.

The poll of more than 2,000 people released Sunday also found that nearly two-thirds of those polled either did not know how many Jews had been murdered or greatly underestimated the number killed during the Holocaust.

“Such widespread ignorance and even denial is shocking,” Chief Executive Olivia Marks-Woldman said.

Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs said in its Global Antisemitism Report released Sunday that 13 Jews were murdered in fatal attacks in 2018, marking the highest number of Jews murdered since a wave of attacks on Argentinian Jews in the 1990s.

The report found that around 70% of anti-Jewish attacks were anti-Israel in nature and that most of the attacks were led by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

The United Nations recognized January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005.

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