Holocaust: Angela Merkel visits Auschwitz for first time

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Auschwitz concentration camp on Friday, her first trip to the site.

The Nazi regime murdered an estimated 1.1 million people at Auschwitz-Birkenau – the vast majority of whom were Jewish.

Mrs Merkel will take part in a ceremony alongside a camp survivor and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Her visit comes amid a rise in German anti-Semitism and ahead of the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

Less than two months ago, a 40-year-old woman and 20-year-old man were shot dead outside a synagogue in eastern Germany. A 27-year-old man confessed and admitted having a far-right, anti-Semitic motive for the shooting.

More than six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the Nazi campaign to destroy Europe’s Jewish population.

The gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau were built near the main Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Why is Merkel visiting now?

Major events are planned for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops on 27 January.

She will hold a minute’s silence at the so-called Black Wall, where prisoners were executed in the original camp, before laying a wreath at the Birkenau death camp.

“Help us to warn humanity against itself,” the foundation’s website reads. “Do not allow history to become a deafening silence. Save the memory.”

Though she has been to other concentration camps, including Dachau and Buchenwald in Germany, this is the chancellor’s first visit to notorious Nazi site, west of the Polish city of Krakow.

Media caption’What a wonderful thing it is to know that you’re alive’

German chancellors have made the trip to Auschwitz before – Helmut Schmidt visited in 1977 and Helmut Kohl in 1989 and 1995. But none has visited since and this first visit by a chancellor for 24 years is being viewed as highly symbolic.

Neither chancellor had to confront a rise in anti-Semitic attacks.

Official figures showed 1,646 hate crimes against Jews were committed in Germany last year – an increase of 10% on the previous year.

Physical attacks against Jews in Germany also rose in the same period, with 62 violent incidents recorded in 2018, up from 37 in 2017.

German reports suggest Mrs Merkel has chosen to visit now in case she is forced out of office earlier than planned. She has previously said she will not stand for re-election in 2021.

Added to this are fears Mrs Merkel’s governing coalition could fall apart.

What was Auschwitz?

What was at first an old army barracks converted by invading Nazi troops to hold Polish political prisoners in 1939 became a vast complex of about 40 camps, and the epicentre of the Holocaust.

Birkenau was set up in 1941 a short distance from the concentration camp and one million Jewish Europeans were murdered in its gas chambers or died of starvation and disease between early 1942 and late 1944.

Tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Roma, homosexuals and political prisoners were murdered there too. Soviet prisoners of war also died.

Soviet forces liberated the camp on 27 January 1945, a date now commemorated worldwide as Holocaust Memorial Day.

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