Survivors and mourners of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp commemorated the 78th anniversary of the liberation of the camp on Friday, which also marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This year, speakers at the ceremony expressed horror that peace in Europe has been upended once again due to the war in Ukraine. The memorial site lies just 185 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border.
“Standing here today at this place of remembrance, Birkenau, I follow with horror the news from the east that the Russian army, which liberated us here, is waging a war there in Ukraine. Why? Why?” said survivor Zdzisława Włodarczyk to the Associated Press during observances Friday.
Among those who attended the event was second gentleman Doug Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of either a U.S. president or vice president.
In the town of Oświęcim in southern Poland, roughly 1.1 million people were killed at the concentration camp now a memorial site, which serves as a stark reminder of the the systematic murder of Jews targeted by Nazi Germany.
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Up until now, Russia has always attended the commemorations on Holocaust Remembrance Day in some capacity, but this year, no Russian official was invited to the commemorations due to the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, expressed empathy for the event on social media, noting his home country’s current position as it fends off Russian aggression.
“Today Ukraine honors the memory of millions of victims of the Holocaust.” Zelensky, who is also Jewish, said. “We know and remember that indifference kills along with hatred.”
Bogdan Bartnikowski, a Pole who was just 12 years old when he was transported to Auschwitz, told the Associated Press that images of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country now ravaged by war triggered traumatic memories.
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“It was literally a blow to the head for me because I suddenly saw, after almost 80 years, what I had seen in a freight car when I was being transported to Auschwitz. A little girl was sitting next to me, hugging a doll to her chest,” said Bartnikowski, now 91.
Doug Emhoff visits camp site as part of Europe trip
Emhoff, the spouse of vice president Kamala Harris, toured the memorial site and left a wreath of flowers at the Death Wall, where thousands of prisoners were executed between 1941 and 1943.
“From the people of the United States of America,” read the sash set upon the wreath.
Emhoff’s visit is part of a broader trip across Europe, where he will also visit Germany to address rising antisemitism globally.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
Story Credit: usatoday.com