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Coming to terms with Nazi past in Germany

Sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's most notorious death camp, ceremonies for the victims of the Holocaust will be held across the globe. NBC News' Andy Eckardt and Lena-Maria Reers report on how Germans continue to face the darkest chapter in their history.
Visitors walk inside former death camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau during a heavy snow storm in Oswiecim
Visitors walk inside former death camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau during a heavy snow storm in Oswiecim on Wednesday.Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's most notorious death camp that became a symbol for Adolf Hitler's apparatus of mass murder, commemoration ceremonies for the victims of the Holocaust are being held across the globe this week.

Several world leaders, including German president Horst Koehler, gathered at the main commemoration event in Oswiecim, Poland, on Thursday while in Berlin, the German government hosted a ceremony in the city that served as the headquarters for Nazi leaders between 1933 and 1945.

At the historic Reichstag building — today home to the Bundestag, Germany's democratic parliament — Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder welcomed the head of the World Jewish Congress, Israel Singer, and several Holocaust survivors.

Among them was Arno Lustiger, a Jewish history professor and author who survived imprisonment in several Nazi concentration camps. At age 20, Lustiger was deported to Blechhammer, a so-called "labor camp,” which was located not too far from the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.

Surviving the camps
"The conditions in the camp were extremely bad, but still, we were very lucky, as Blechhammer was not a death camp in the first place," Lustiger said in an interview ahead of Thursday's commemoration.

"Instead, the aim was to exploit us as a workforce,” Lustiger said. Yet, once the prisoners grew too weak or sick for active labor, they were deported to Auschwitz and killed in the gas chambers.

"Only two weeks before my arrival at Blechhammer, my father was murdered at Auschwitz," Lustiger said.

As a survivor of the Holocaust, Lustiger welcomed the opportunity to speak at the  commemoration ceremony in Berlin.

"I think it is a very good opportunity for me to address some historic aspects and unanswered questions, roughly 60 years after the end of World War II," he said.

Auschwitz revisited
Siegmund Kalinski, who was imprisoned at Auschwitz from 1943 to 1945, has been living in Germany as a German citizen for almost 40 years. All his adult life, he has been trying to forget his terrible experience, but he is now determined to return to the place of his torture.

Kalinski is among a small group of survivors who traveled to Poland to join the 60th anniversary commemoration, which also was attended by world leaders including President Vladimir Putin of Russia, France's Jacques Chirac and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"First and foremost, I am going to Oswiecim because I am one of the few Holocaust survivors that are still alive, and secondly, I think I owe attendance and commemoration to all my comrades who did not survive," Kalinski said.

Even though Kalinski, who is married to a German woman, feels very comfortable in Germany, he remains worried about lingering anti-Semitism.

"In my opinion, about 20 percent of all Germans feel an aversion toward Jews and that is far too many," he said. "Therefore, we have to be careful that ideologies, like that of Adolf Hitler, do not take root in Germany again. It would be poison, not only for Germany, but for the whole world."

Recent success for far-right
Kalinski was referring to recent political developments. Germany's far-right parties last year gained up to 21 percent of the votes in some town council elections in the eastern German state of Saxony, and they now hold seats in the Saxony's state parliament.

This month, the extremist National Party of Germany, NPD, provoked nationwide outrage by walking out of the state parliament during a minute's silence for the victims of the Holocaust. Additionally, party delegates referred to the 1945 Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden as a "bombing holocaust.”

On May 8, the right-wing party also is planning a march at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, only a block away from a new national Holocaust memorial. The German government has been considering new restrictions to make memorials off-limits to demonstrations and make it easier to ban marches that might glorify the Nazis, but it is a "constitutionally difficult matter," a German interior ministry spokesman said.

Although Lustiger says that he is not afraid for himself, he fears that extremist tendencies could prove harmful for Germany. "That is why I demand certain constitutional judges take off their velvet gloves," Lustiger said.

In a public speech this week, Chancellor Schroeder appealed to all Germans to counter neo-Nazi tendencies and the "enemies of tolerance.”

"The overwhelming majority of Germans living today do not bear guilt for the Holocaust, but they do bear a special responsibility," Schroeder said.

The recent turmoil in Saxony's state parliament, as well as the growing number of radical right-wing demonstrations — which are regularly being planned and often banned in Germany underscore the need for continued education on the darkest chapter in German history.

The next generation
But, how the bitter legacy of the Holocaust is dealt with, not only in Germany but elsewhere as well, is expected to undergo changes soon due to a generational shift.

"As the number of survivors shrinks all the time, we are on the brink of that moment when this terrible event will change, from memory to history," said Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom summing up his government's support of a new approach to remembering his people's fate.

Even though many Jews in Germany, like Lustiger, believe that more needs to be done to reinforce the ethos of "never again," they acknowledge that the country's Nazi history is covered comprehensively in schools and publications.

"A lot of good things are done to convey Nazi history to adults, adolescents and children," said Lustiger. "There are, for example, 98 memorials all over Germany, where educational programs are offered so that people can learn about the threats and cruelty of this mass murder.”

In history lessons, religious education or literature classes, the Holocaust is a mandatory subject for German high-school students.

Thousands of German school children are among the 600,000 people who visit Auschwitz each year.

"For my generation, the topic often seems very stale and boring,” said Anne Loschert, a 23-year-old student at the university of Wuerzburg.

"But, on the other hand, I am very much aware of the devastating impact of Germany's Nazi past, and I suppose most of my generation is. That's why I believe that we should prevent similar things from happening again," she said.