Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder paid tribute Tuesday to the victims of the Auschwitz death camp, acknowledging the Nazis had wide support and promising that Germany will fulfill its "moral obligation" to keep alive the memory of their crimes.
"I express my shame in the face of those who were murdered — and above all you, who survived the hell of the concentration camps," a somber Schroeder told a commemoration at a theater that included survivors of the camp liberated 60 years ago Thursday.
Some 1.5 million people, most of them Jews from across Europe, died in gas chambers or of disease and exhaustion at Auschwitz and neighboring Birkenau. The death camps were the most notorious set up by Adolf Hitler to carry out his "final solution," the murder of Europe's Jewish population.
Six million Jews died in the Nazi camps, along with several million others, including Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, homosexuals and political opponents of the Nazis.
Amid concern that the lessons of the Holocaust still need reinforcing, elderly survivors of Auschwitz and world leaders will gather Thursday at the death camp site in Poland to mark its Jan. 27, 1945, liberation by the Red Army.
"The evil of Nazi ideology did not occur without preconditions," Schroeder said at the event organized by the International Auschwitz Committee. "The brutalization of thought and the loss of moral inhibitions had a history; above all, Nazi ideology was desired by people and man-made."
"There can be no compensation for the scale of the horror, the torture and the suffering that took place in the concentration camps," Schroeder said.
Schroeder said Germans could never and should never shed the responsibility for the Holocaust, reports CBS News' Peter Bild. Schroeder noted that few Germans alive today bear any guilt for the ruthless killings, a point also made by Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress.
The memory of the Nazi genocide "is part of our national identity," Schroeder said. "Remembering the era of National Socialism and its crimes is a moral obligation — we owe that not only to the victims, the survivors and the relatives, but to ourselves.
"It is true that the temptation to forget and suppress it is great, but we will not succumb to it," Schroeder promised.
Both Schroeder and Singer urged Germans to combat signs of an upsurge in anti-Semitism, which has seen synagogues vandalized, and the election of far-right neo-Nazi parties into German regional assemblies.
Schroeder vowed German leaders would protect the country's growing Jewish community "with the power of the state against the anti-Semitism of the incorrigible.
"That there is still anti-Semitism cannot be denied," Schroeder said. "Fighting it is the task of all society."
Auschwitz survivor Kurt Julius Goldstein recalled being forced onto one of the Nazis' "death marches" westward as the Nazi defeat approached.
"I was in a column that was about 3,000 strong when we set off," said Goldstein, 90, his voice breaking with emotion. "When we were registered at Buchenwald on Jan. 22, there were less than 500 of us — more dead than alive."
Auschwitz "is the biggest cemetery in the whole world," said Goldstein, honorary president of the International Auschwitz Committee. "None of them has a memorial stone — the Nazis wanted them to be forgotten. We have a duty to prevent that."
The Soviet liberators found some 7,000 people behind the barbed wire of the camp, many barely alive.
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 a state legislature, have raised renewed concerns about the threat of anti-Semitism.
Avner Shalev, chairman of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, said the recent controversy in Britain over as part of a party costume showed education may be lacking among some young people. But many people in Britain responded immediately, he said.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel said in an interview with Italy's La Repubblica newspaper that anti-Semitism was on the rise in Western Europe.
"Sometimes I think the world will learn nothing," he was quoted as saying. "If someone had told me that sixty years later I would have to fight to ensure the Holocaust was not repeated, that anti-Semitism will not return, I would not have believed it."
In Paris, a new memorial to the Holocaust was inaugurated Tuesday, with French President Jacques Chirac bowing before the wall inscribed with the names of 76,000 Jews sent to Nazi death camps from France.
Chirac said anti-Semitism is a "perversion" that has no place in France and would not be tolerated.
France has been troubled by a surge in anti-Semitic attacks in recent years. Chirac, the first president to acknowledge France was responsible for systematically persecuting Jews during World War II, urged the government to do everything in its powers to stop attacks on Jews.