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“Let us remember that we are on the site of the most gigantic cemetery in the world, a cemetery where there are no graves, no stones, but where the ashes of more than one million people lie.”

— Polish Minister of Culture Waldemar Dabrowski, 2005.

Sixty-five years ago this week Soviet Red Army forces liberated Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland whose name would soon be synonymous throughout the world with ghastly horror.

The Auschwitz complex was the largest of the German network of concentration camps that systematically slaughtered 6 million European Jews and millions of other “undesirables” from 1939 to 1945. It consisted of the main camp Auschwitz, the extermination camp Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the labor camp Auschwitz III-Monowitz and 45 satellite camps.

Auschwitz was the administrative center of the complex and it was here that prisoners were herded through an entrance gate crowned by the infamous sign reading “Arbeit macht frei,” often translated as “work brings freedom.” Inmates at Auschwitz reportedly twisted the slogan to reflect the horrific fate they faced, saying “Arbeit macht frei durch den Schornstein,” or “Work brings freedom through the chimney.”

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was where most of the executions took place. From March 1942 through October 1944 an estimated 1.1 million people — among them 1 million Jews — were transported there from all over Nazi-occupied Europe to be murdered. Extermination operations only ceased as the Soviet Red Army closed in, and efforts switched to destroying evidence of the Nazi regime’s horrific crimes. Fewer than 8,000 survivors were found when Soviet troops liberated the camp Jan. 27, 1945. Among the evidence left behind of the abominable crimes committed were 382,820 men’s suits and 836,255 articles of women’s clothing.

Debate has continued since 1945 over whether the Allied powers could have acted sooner to halt the Holocaust. While this issue will likely never be decisively settled, after the war the international community took steps to prevent future genocides, principally the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide. But as the mass killings in Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur show, we have failed in this task. The anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is a reminder that the international community must remain vigilant and be ready to take collective action whenever the specter of genocide rears its ugly head.

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