OSWIECIM, Poland, Jan. 27 -- Except for the cremation ovens, now reduced to piles of rubble, the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau has been meticulously preserved. The frozen ground is still ringed by barbed wire. The low-slung brick barracks, once overflowing with skeletal prisoners, look sturdy.
For the world leaders and hundreds of concentration camp survivors who assembled here Thursday to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the freshness of the horrible crimes committed here by the Third Reich was palpable. In an echo from that time, a loud train whistle sounded across the snowdrifts, a reminder of the boxcars that carried as many as 1.5 million doomed people into the Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945.
A survivor attends the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where more than a million people died.
(Sean Gallup -- Getty Images)
Never Forget: More than 1.5 million people died at the three Auschwitz death camps before Soviet troops arrived to free the survivors 60 years ago.
"Where we are now gathered, no words can render the entire terrifying truth about the horrors committed in this place," said Aleksander Kwasniewski, president of Poland. "But we must speak, remember, cry out: This was hell on Earth."
More than two dozen presidents, prime ministers, members of royalty and other leaders sat in the bitterly cold open air into the night to remember the 6 million victims of the Holocaust, most of them Jews. Among those attending were Vice President Cheney, German President Horst Koehler, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Jacques Chirac, Britain's Prince Edward and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, whose father was held at the camp as a Soviet prisoner of war.
While the ceremony was designed to keep memories of the Holocaust alive, it took place against a backdrop of recent events in Europe that underscore the ways in which the continent is still coming to grips with the lessons of the era.
In Germany, where denying the genocide against Jews is a crime, a political party that sympathizes with neo-Nazis walked out of a Holocaust memorial service in Saxony last week to protest what its leaders called lack of recognition of the large numbers of German civilians killed by Allied bombers during World War II. In Russia, two dozen members of the parliament recently signed a letter blaming Jews for "provoking" anti-Semitism and asking the government to ban Jewish groups on grounds of extremism.
In France, nationalist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen -- who won 18 percent of the vote in the presidential election three years ago -- said in a magazine interview published this month that the severity of the Nazi occupation of his country had been exaggerated, calling it "not especially inhumane."
Around the same time, Britain's Prince Harry showed up at a party dressed as a Nazi, dealing a huge public embarrassment to the House of Windsor. It dispatched Harry's uncle, Prince Edward, to Auschwitz as its representative for the ceremonies.
"Sixty years later, we face a reemergence of anti-Semitism in Europe," said Israeli President Moshe Katsav. "Is it possible that the deterrent power of the Shoah has weakened?" he asked, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust. "The answer is in the hands of Europe's leaders, it is in the hands of the educators and historians. It is in our hands."
Germany's President Koehler solemnly carried a candle at the ceremony in memory of the victims, but he made no remarks. It is customary at observances of this sort for German representatives to attend as acknowledgment that the crimes were the work of Germans, but to remain silent.
The Auschwitz complex consisted of three main camps and as many as 36 sub-camps. Prisoners were gassed, shot, starved or killed by other means at what became the Third Reich's deadliest killing field. About 1 million of the victims were Jews, brought into the camps in rural southern Poland on trains that efficiently unloaded the passengers right outside the gas chambers. Others included Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, members of the Roma minority, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.
About 2,000 aging survivors of Auschwitz -- still bearing Nazi-inscribed identification tattoos on their forearms -- braved painful memories as well as the cold to return for the ceremony. They sat huddled in thick blankets on chairs as smoke rose from a dozen giant mesh pillars filled with blazing charcoal, a reminder of how the Germans methodically eliminated any trace of the victims.
"To explain what happened is impossible," said Ted Lehman, a native of a southern Polish village who was taken to Auschwitz at age 16 but escaped death when his captors sent him to a slave labor camp in Slovakia to manufacture munitions for the German army. He lost his entire family in the Holocaust but shrugs his shoulders when asked what he thinks of European politicians and public figures who diminish the reality of what happened.
"They don't bother me, these things," said Lehman, who immigrated to the United States after the war and now lives in Richmond. "Look, there's anti-Semitism everywhere in Europe. But they can't do it again to the Jews, mostly for the reason that there are hardly any left here. They're all in Israel or the U.S."
When Soviet troops liberated the camp 60 years ago, they discovered about 7,000 inmates who had been left behind by the Nazis. One of them was a girl named Eva, a 10-year-old Romanian Jew and a victim of the gruesome medical experiments conducted by Auschwitz's head physician, Josef Mengele.
Now married and living in Terre Haute, Ind., Eva Mozes Kor has returned to the camp several times over the past two decades, to make sure that others remember what happened but also to celebrate her survival.
"I know most people won't understand this," she said, clutching a black-and-white photograph taken by a Soviet soldier that shows her on liberation day, standing inside a barbed-wire enclosure. "But I have forgiven the Nazis. I have forgiven Mengele. I have forgiven everybody. I no longer carry the burden of pain. I have given myself the gift of forgiveness."
Cheney was not among the speakers at the ceremony on the grounds of Auschwitz. But at a Holocaust memorial forum earlier in the day in the city of Krakow, he said the lessons of how the Allied powers confronted the Third Reich were still applicable today.
"Gathered in this place, we are reminded that such immense cruelty did not happen in a faraway, uncivilized corner of the world, but rather in the very heart of the civilized world," Cheney said. "The death camps were created by men with a high opinion of themselves -- some of them well educated and possessed of refined manners -- but without conscience. The story of the camps reminds us that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted."
While Cheney has made no overt link between Nazi fascism and modern terrorism during his trip, Putin in his remarks at Auschwitz directly connected the two in an apparent reference to Russia's struggles with Islamic separatists in Chechnya.
"We shall not only remember the past but also be aware of all the threats of the modern world," Putin said. "Terrorism is among them, and it is no less dangerous and cunning than fascism. As there were no 'good' and 'bad' fascists, there cannot be 'good' and 'bad' terrorists. Any double standards here are absolutely unacceptable and deadly dangerous for civilization."