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Survivors, dignitaries celebrate life, remember dead at Auschwitz

OSWIECIM, Poland—As Nazi death doctor Josef Mengele drained her left arm of blood while filling her right with poisons and germs—sending her into the hospital and what Mengele told her would be certain death—Eva Mozes Kor vowed to survive. That was 1944.

Thursday, standing on an ice-covered patch not far from where Mengele had mocked her coming end, she smiled.

"Just look at all of us," the 70-year-old resident of Terre Haute, Ind., said, sweeping a hand toward hundreds of fellow survivors, seated on plastic chairs and chatting 40 yards from the ruins of one of the notorious gas chambers.

"Here we are, 60 years after the Nazis were defeated, after almost all of the old Nazis are gone, and here we are, standing and celebrating 60 years of freedom."

In bitter cold and a blowing snowstorm that brought back memories of how hard it had been to survive in this place, thousands of survivors joined dozens of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Jacques Chirac, and Vice President Dick Cheney, to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

The anniversary, both a celebration of life and a remembrance of the dead, may well be the last such commemoration that will include a large number of the survivors. Kor wore a bright blue coat and bright red scarf because, she said, "Auschwitz is such a dreary place, not so bad now as then, but it needs some color."

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko lit a candle in honor of Ukrainians who died here—and for his father, an Auschwitz inmate who survived.

The ceremony began with the sound of train wheels screeching to a halt, a grim reminder that this was how the horrors of Auschwitz began for its victims.

"Most of them were sent to the gas chambers right upon arrival, their only guilt being that they were born Jews," noted former French Minister of Culture Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor, recalling how Mengele motioned new arrivals left or right as they stepped onto the "selection platform." The choice sent them either into a world of starvation, slave labor and struggle to survive, or to instant death.

In the 60 years since the Soviet Army liberated the camp, with its 7,000 still-living inmates, she said she's never able to shake a single thought:

"What would have become of them, of this million of Jewish children, murdered in their infancy or in their youth here or in ghettos or in other death camps? Would they have become philosophers? Artists? Great scientists? Or perhaps just skilled craftsmen or mothers of families? All I know is I keep crying when I think about them, and that I will never forget them."

A central point of the observance was to make sure the world never forgets.

Yushchenko, whose father was prisoner number 11307 according to the tattoo on his chest, noted, "Only the pain and the memories will give us the wisdom and strength to ensure that forever and ever, these doors to Hell remain closed."

For the survivors there was satisfaction in being alive.

"I never imagined I would outlive Adolf Hitler or survive World War II," said Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Pole sent to Auschwitz a year after the Nazis swept across his country. It was September 1940.

Kor, who last saw her mother, father and a sister on the Auschwitz selection platform, was kept alive because she had a twin, and Mengele experimented on twins. Thursday, she clutched a photo of the two of them holding hands, in inmates' stripes, on liberation day, Jan. 27, 1945.

"It is different returning now," she said. "I show up in the morning, and I know that I can leave when I wish."

Then she smiled. "To be honest, I plan on coming back on the 100th anniversary. Wouldn't the Nazis have loved that?"

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AUSCHWITZ

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050124 Auschwitz, 20050120 Auschwitz

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