Maj. Anatoly Shapiro, who commanded the Soviet unit that captured the camp on Jan. 27, 1945, greeted leaders and survivors at a morning Holocaust forum in Krakow ahead of the main ceremony at the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps.
"I would like to say to all the people on the earth: Unite, and do not permit this evil that was committed," said Shapiro, 92, in a recorded video greeting played at Krakow's Slovacki theater. "This should never be repeated, ever."
The forum began with applause for Shapiro, who lives in New York and was too ill to travel, and three other Soviet army veterans who helped liberate Auschwitz. President Aleksander Kwasniewski awarded Yakov Vinnichenko with the Polish Officer's Cross, while Genri Koptev-Gomolov and Nikolai Chertkov were awarded the Cavalry Cross of the Polish Republic.
Israeli President Moshe Katsav then reminded the Krakow gathering that the camp site was now part of the European Union, which Poland joined in May. "Auschwitz must be placed in the central place of collective memory of the reunited Europe," Katsav said.
Vice President Dick Cheney noted that the Holocaust did not happen in some far-off place but "in the heart of the civilized world," and said "the story of the camps shows that evil is real and must be called by its name and must be confronted."
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, while paying tribute to the Soviet liberators, won long applause after he acknowledged the persistence of anti-Semitism in his country.
"Even in our country, in Russia, which did more than any to combat fascism, did most to save the Jews, even in our country we sometimes unfortunately see manifestations of this problem and I, too, am ashamed of that," he said.
Russian Jews have expressed hope that Putin, too, would address the issue of anti-Semitism. Earlier this month, a group of nationalist Russian lawmakers called for an investigation aimed at outlawing all Jewish organizations and punishing officials who support them, accusing Jews of fomenting ethnic hatred and saying they provoke anti-Semitism.
Ukraine's newly elected president Viktor Yushchenko, greeted with a standing ovation when he entered the hall, said he brought his children to the occasion and spoke of his father, a wounded Soviet prisoner of war who survived imprisonment in Auschwitz. "This is a sacred place for me and my family. This is a place where Andrei Yushchenko, my father, suffered.
"There will never be a Jewish question in my country, I vow that," he said.
Kwasniewski, Katsav, Yushchenko and Putin were to join survivors later at the infamous rail siding at the nearby Birkenau camp, where Nazi doctors carried out the "selection" of new arrivals. That meant separating those deemed able to be worked to death from the majority who immediately were sent to the gas chambers.
Some 1.5 million people, most of them Jews from across Europe, died in gas chambers or of disease, starvation, abuse and exhaustion at Auschwitz and Birkenau — the most notorious of the death camps set up by Adolf Hitler to carry out his "final solution," the murder of Europe's Jewish population.
Soviet troops reached the camp on Jan. 27, 1945, finding some 7,000 survivors, many barely alive. The retreating Nazis had driven most of the prisoners who still had strength to walk out into the snow, on a "death march" toward camps further west.
Six million Jews died in the Nazi camps, along with several million others, including Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.
Germany's president Horst Koehler attended but was not scheduled to speak — an acknowledgment of Germany's role as the perpetrator of the Holocaust.
Reports in western Europe of increasing anti-Jewish incidents such as vandalizing graves and a walkout last week by members of a small German far-right party from an Auschwitz commemoration in the Saxony state legislature were cited as examples of why it is important to go on teaching about the Holocaust.
Auschwitz was remembered in Israel Thursday as well, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger.
Lawrence Weinberg of the World Jewish Congress called Auschwitz a symbol of the Holocaust because "it was the place in which the most sophisticated means of extermination were used."
Roman Kent lost his mother, father and sister at Auschwitz.
"If you would think this is an entrance to hell, this is the understatement," he said. "The dogs were biting the flesh from people, and the Germans were hitting with the stick and the special whips which they had."
In Brussels, Belgium, members of the European Parliament stood for a minute of silence to pay tribute to Holocaust victims. The parliament then passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and racism, and called for EU governments to put aside money for educational programs on the Holocaust and to fight racism.
"It's difficult to pay just memory to it," said EU Parliament President Josep Borrell. "It is a battle against the weakness of memory, something which should never happen again."