German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Auschwitz for first time

Merkel had previously paid her respects at other Nazi concentration camps, but this was her first visit to the notorious death camp.

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By Henry Austin and Associated Press

Fourteen years after becoming Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel made her first visit Friday to the most notorious site of Adolf Hitler's atrocities: the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in Poland.

Accompanied by former prisoners, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and representatives of Jewish organizations, the German leader walked through the infamous gates with the Nazi inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work sets you free).

She was then shown around the grounds of the site where the Nazis killed an estimated 1.1 million people during World War II.

Most of the victims were Jews transported from across Europe to be killed in gas chambers. But tens of thousands of others, including Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and those belonging to the Roma group were also killed at the site.

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To the west of the city of Krakow, Auschwitz was originally an old army barracks before it was converted into a concentration camp to hold Polish political prisoners by Nazi troops, shortly after they invaded in 1939.

Merkel was due to hold a minute's silence at the so-called Black Wall, where thousands of prisoners were executed in the original camp, before moving to Birkenau extermination camp, where she was set to give a speech.

Less than a mile away, Birkenau was set up two years after Auschwitz.

While major events are planned for the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation by Soviet forces Jan. 27 — a date now commemorated worldwide as Holocaust Memorial Day — Merkel was invited to attend the camp by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which marks its 10th anniversary Friday.

The group works to conserve the physical remnants of the site, including the barracks, watchtowers and personal items such as the shoes and the suitcases of those killed, as both a memorial and a warning for future generations, according to its website.

"Help us to warn humanity against itself," it reads. "Do not allow history to become a deafening silence. Save the memory."

Merkel brought a donation of 60 million euros ($66.6 million) — half from the federal government and half from the German states — for the organization.

An acknowledgment of the German nation's responsibility, it brings the total donation from the country to 120 million euros and makes it by far the most generous of 38 nations that have contributed.

Merkel has paid her respects at other Nazi concentration camps since becoming chancellor, and has been to Israel's Holocaust museum and Yad Vashem memorial five times.