A memorial stone is pictured at the former Bergen-Belsen Nazi death camp.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder warned Sunday at the ceremony marking 70 years since the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany that history is in danger of repeating itself.
"Seventy years ago, the world was silent and now we are standing on one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world,” Lauder said. “We appear to be descending into the same hell today. Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, neo-Nazi groups are sitting in Parliament in Hungary and Greece, and Iranian leaders repeatedly promise to wipe Israel from the pages of time. To shout against the past while remaining silent about the present is not just wrong; it is outrageous and immoral."
Although Belsen was not officially an extermination camp, one hundred thousand Jews, Poles, Russians, Gypsies and other victims perished there including Jewish teenager diarist Anne Frank. The camp was liberated by British soldiers in April 1945. A Displaced Persons camp was later established nearby. It was closed in September 1950. An estimated 2,000 children were born to Holocaust survivors at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.
On Sunday thousands of people gathered at the memorial site, built after the camp was dismantled, including several Holocaust survivors and their relatives, with many leaving small rocks, each representing a victim, on memorial walls and graves scattered around Belsen.
"From the ashes of this terrible place, the Jewish people rose up and moved on. Today there is a younger generation of Jews committed to making sure the Jewish people never fall victim to this kind of evil again. Just as you never let us down, we will not let you down," Lauder vowed.
German President Joachim Gauck also spoke at the ceremony, lamenting the plight of young people at the infamous camp. "Many families and children were imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen camp. During the last years of the war, there were an estimated 3000 children under 14 years of age. These young people were witnesses of suffering, death and sicknesses. They were forced to watch, as mothers and fathers were humiliated and beaten. The parents were helpless. They could not protect their own children from injustice and inhumanity."
He said that despite the time that has passed since the camp's liberation, its memory still serves to send a powerful message. "Seventy years, that's almost a whole life span. That's how long it is since pictures and stories (from Bergen-Belsen) shook the world. But even today and in the future these images will continue to make the world think, unsettle us and our children, and prompt us to ask "Why?", and make us sad and angry."
Around 20,000 thousand corpses lined the streets of the camp as the British troops arrived at the camp on April 15, 1945 and a further 13,000 people died after the liberation.
Thousands of skeletal figures, ravaged by hunger and disease stumbled through piles of unburied bodies.
On liberation, SS forces were ordered to bury the dead, inmates were transferred to a British camp a couple of miles away and the camp was burnt down at the end of May to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
The commander of the camp, Joseph Kramer, also known as "the Beast of Belsen" was arrested soon after the liberation.
He was sentenced to death by a British military court and later hanged.