Dozens of elderly Holocaust survivors lit candles at Auschwitz on Wednesday, exactly 71 years after the Soviet army liberated the death camp that has become the most powerful symbol of the human suffering inflicted by Nazi Germany during World War II.
The commemoration at the former death camp in southern Poland, an area under Nazi occupation during the war, is part of the U.N.-designated International Remembrance Day, marked by politicians, survivors and others in ceremonies and events across the world.
At Auschwitz some of the survivors wore sashes or scarves that recalled the striped pajama-style clothing that prisoners were forced to wear. They placed candles and wreaths at a wall where many prisoners were executed before gathering with the presidents of Poland and Croatia for official ceremonies.
The Nazis killed more than 1 million people at Auschwitz, most of them Jews but also Roma, non-Jewish Poles and others.
This year’s commemorations come as a resurgence of anti-Semitism casts a shadow over a new generation of European Jews, something that is driving thousands of them each year to leave the continent.
“We must be honest enough to admit that more than 70 years after the Shoah, anti-Semitism is still alive in our ‘civilized’ European Union,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top foreign affairs representative, said in a statement.
Jewish immigration to Israel from Western Europe grew last year due to a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. Most — nearly 8,000 — were from France, where Islamic extremist attacks have destroyed the sense of security previously felt by Europe’s largest Jewish population.
In Germany, where hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees have arrived in the past year, Jews feel threatened from both the far right and people coming from countries like Syria.
A rise in anti-Muslim hostility amid the migrant crisis is — irrationally — also fueling anti-Semitism as a growing number of people lash out in fear at anyone they perceive as different.
On Saturday, neo-Nazis paraded in the center of the English city of Newcastle doing Nazi salutes and carrying a banner that said: “Refugees Not Welcome. Hitler Was Right.”
And late last year in Poland, far-right extremists at an anti-migrant demonstration in Wroclaw burned the effigy of an Orthodox Jew.
At a ceremony Wednesday morning at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke out against a “rising tide of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry and other forms of discrimination” around the world, and he used the occasion to once again call for all parties in Syria’s conflict to allow the unimpeded delivery of aid to millions.
“Starvation as a weapon of war and the deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime,” he said.
World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder said in a statement sent to The Associated Press: “Many anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers are not afraid any more to spread their hateful messages. They do it more and more openly, on the Internet, in public places. … Sometimes, Jews are even made scapegoats for the influx of refugees into Europe.”
Amid rising intolerance, some elected leaders are trying to do more to fight hatred.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Wednesday that a planned national memorial to Holocaust victims will be built next to the Parliament building in central London “as a permanent statement of our values as a nation.”
There were other official commemorations across Europe on Wednesday — from Estonia and Lithuania to Serbia and Albania.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama is marking the day by honoring four people — two Americans and two Poles — for risking their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust.
In Berlin, the German Parliament gathered to remember the victims of the Holocaust and heard Ruth Klueger, an Austrian-born writer who survived Auschwitz and other camps, tell of her experience as a camp inmate and slave laborer.
Klueger, now 84, also recalled the initial denial of Nazi crimes in postwar Germany and contrasted that with the country now.
“Two or even three generations have grown up here since then and this country, which was responsible 80 years ago for the worst crimes of the century, has today won the applause of the world thanks to its open borders and the generosity with which it has taken in Syrian and other refugees, and still is,” Klueger said.
Klueger on Wednesday meanwhile lauded Germany for keeping its doors open to thousands of war refugees, calling Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “we can do it” slogan “heroic.”
“This country, which was responsible for the worst crimes of the century, has won the applause of the world today,” the 84-year-old scholar told the German parliament in an address as part of commemorations for International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“I am one of the many outsiders who has gone from surprise to admiration,” Klueger said, describing Merkel’s rallying call of “We can do it” as a “simple but heroic slogan.”
Merkel has repeated the mantra over recent months as she has resisted fierce opposition — even from within her conservative camp — to reverse her policy toward refugees.
Klueger, who now lives in the United States, said it was precisely Merkel’s approach toward those fleeing war and misery that had moved her to accept the German parliament’s invitation to speak on the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp.
Klueger is one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, and was first deported to Auschwitz before being sent to the forced labor camp Christianstadt.
Germany has commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau every year for the past two decades.
Around 1.1 million people, most of them European Jews, perished between 1940 and 1945 in the camp before it was liberated by Soviet forces.