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Auschwitz survivors mark liberation anniversary online amid coronavirus pandemic

“The greatest danger for all of us begins with forgetting," said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
A wreath is laid at the monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday. Czarek Sokolowski / AP
/ Source: Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland — A Jewish prayer for the souls of the people murdered in the Holocaust echoed Wednesday over where the Warsaw ghetto stood during World War II as a world paused by the coronavirus pandemic observed the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Most International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations were being held online this year due to the virus, including the annual ceremony at the site of the former Auschwitz death camp, where Nazi German forces killed 1.1 million people in occupied Poland. The memorial site is closed to visitors because of the pandemic.

In one of the few live events, mourners gathered in Poland's capital to pay their respects at a memorial in the former Warsaw ghetto, the largest of all the ghettos where European Jews were held in cruel and deadly conditions before being sent to die in mass extermination camps.

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German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a message to a World Jewish Congress and Auschwitz memorial museum event, said the online nature of remembrance events takes nothing away from their importance.

“It's a duty but also a responsibility, one we inherit from those who lived through the horrors of the Shoah, whose voices are gradually disappearing,” Steinmeier said. “The greatest danger for all of us begins with forgetting. With no longer remembering what we inflict upon one another when we tolerate anti-Semitism and racism in our midst."

“We must remain alert, must identify prejudice and conspiracy theories, and combat them with reason, passion and resolve,” he added.

From the Vatican, Pope Francis said remembering was a sign of humanity and a condition for a peaceful future while warning that distorted ideologies could lead to a repeat of mass murder on a horrific scale.

In Austria and Slovakia, hundreds of survivors were offered their first doses of a vaccine against the coronavirus in a gesture both symbolic and lifesaving given the threat of the virus to older adults. In Israel, some 900 Holocaust survivors died from Covid-19 out of 5,300 who were infected last year.

Israel, which counts 197,000 Holocaust survivors, officially marks its Holocaust remembrance day in the spring. But events were also being held across the country, mostly virtually or without members of the public in attendance.

Survivors and many others joined a World Jewish Congress campaign which involved posting photos of themselves and #WeRemember. They were broadcast at Auschwitz on a screen next to the gate and a cattle car representing the way camp inmates were transported there.

The online nature of this year's commemorations is a sharp contrast to events marking last year's anniversary, when some 200 survivors and dozens of European leaders and royalty gathered at the site of the former camp. It was one of the last large international gatherings before the pandemic brought normal life to a halt.