Europe pays tribute to Holocaust victims

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Sixty-one years after the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, the grimmest symbol of the murder of six million Jews in World War II, ceremonies across Europe marked the first international Holocaust remembrance day.

They came amid a storm provoked by an Iranian plan to stage a conference questioning the Holocaust, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has described as a "myth."

At the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in southern Poland, the largest built by the Nazis, Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz presided over ceremonies attended by camp survivors and the Jewish community.

Marcinkiewicz said it was impossible to be indifferent to the horrors of the Holocaust.

"The Nazis' Auschwitz camp is the biggest cemetery in Europe that has no tombs. It's all the more important to preserve the memory of what happened here ... as a warning for a world still full of hate and aggression," he said.

Historians estimate around 1.1 million men, women and children, most of them Jews from Germany and Nazi-occupied countries, died at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945.

Earlier Friday during a visit to Switzerland, United Nations chief Kofi Annan denounced those who deny the mass murders committed by German dictator Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.

Last November the UN General Assembly declared January 27 its official memorial day for the Holocaust -- the systematic slaughter by the Nazis of mainland Europe's Jews, as well as other groups, during World War II.

In Berlin, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Norbert Lammert, said recent statements from Iran's Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust showed the need to recall terrible crimes.

The solemn service in the Bundestag was accompanied by other events in Germany and across Europe.

One unusual act of remembrance took place in the Polish capital Warsaw Friday, where an empty tramcar bearing the Star of David in place of a number rolled through the streets.

The tram was identical to those that in the 1940s travelled through the Warsaw ghetto, which was created then annihilated by the Nazi occupiers.

Meanwhile, Poland's powerful Roman Catholic Church called on believers to light candles in their windows Friday at 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) in memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.

In Estonia, invaded by German troops in 1941, the government issued a statement expressing regret that some Estonians collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in perpetrating crimes against humanity as policemen or camp guards.

"There is no justification whatsoever for the participation of any person in those shameful and morally condemnable acts," the statement said.

In Lithuania, the ambassadors of Britain, Germany, Poland, Russia, the United States and other officials gathered at a memorial at Paneriai, close to the capital Vilnius, to listen to prayers.

Paneriai was the site of a Nazi death camp where some 100,000 people, mainly Jews, were killed between 1941 and 1943.

In Belgrade, where 5,000 Jews and Roma died in a concentration camp, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica opened a monument to the memory of victims.

"We must fight against all types of intolerance, against racial, religious or national segregation and all sorts of exclusion," he said.

In Italy, a ceremony presided by Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini marked the publication of a book about some 400 Italians who saved Jews from 1943 to 1945 during Nazi occupation.

Council of Europe chief Terry Davis warned that "61 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Europe is not yet free of racism, anti-Semitism, prejudice against Roma or homophobia.

"If anything, it has added new forms of intolerance such as Islamophobia to this shameful list."

"We need deeds, not words" to fight discrimination, the secretary general of the democracy and rights body added.

Croatia's President Stipe Mesic said at a ceremony that young students should be taught about the Holocaust to ensure peace for future generations.

He reiterated criticism that Croatian schoolbooks virtually ignored the Holocaust and condemned public displays by nationalistic teenagers of symbols of Croatia's wartime pro-Nazi Ustasha regime, under which thousands of Jews, Roma, Serbs and anti-fascist Croatians were killed in concentration camps.

Ceremonies also took place in the Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, Spain and Sweden, with more planned over the weekend, including in Amsterdam and the Greek city of Salonica, whose thriving Jewish community was wiped out.

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