Oswiecim, Poland: Germany’s Angela Merkel crossed the gates of the former Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland on Friday for the first time in her 14 years as chancellor, promising to battle a new wave of anti-Semitism.
Merkel is only the third chancellor ever to visit the Nazi German camp where a million Jews were killed between 1940 and 1945 and which has come to symbolise the Holocaust as a whole.
Her trip, which comes ahead of the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by Soviet troops on January 27, is being seen as an important political message.
On the eve of her visit, 65-year-old Merkel said that “the fight against anti-Semitism and against all forms of hate” was a priority for her government.
She also hailed a new 60-million-euro ($66-million) donation for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation that was approved by Germany’s federal states on Thursday.
Merkel began her visit by walking under the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (Work will set you free) that still hangs over the gates of the camp.
She will also hold a minute’s silence by the Death Wall where thousands of prisoners were shot dead and visit the site of a gas chamber and a crematorium.
The visit “is a particularly important signal of attention and solidarity at a time when Auschwitz survivors are victims of anti-Semitic insults and hate-filled emails,” said Christoph Heubner, deputy chairman of the Auschwitz International Committee.
Merkel was accompanied during the visit by a survivor of the camp, 87-year-old Bogdan Stanislaw Bartnikowski, as well as Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, also took part in the visit.
In total, 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and anti-Nazi fighters.
Many were killed the same day they arrived at the camp.