Kazimierz Smolen, a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor who after World War II became director of the memorial site, died Friday, The Associated Press reported.
Smolen died on an historic day: the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. AP reported that he died in a hospital in Oswiecim, the southern Polish town where Nazi Germany operated Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II
Friday is the anniversary of the camp’s 1945 liberation by Soviet troops. January 27 was designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations in 2005. The day was marked with ceremonies across Europe.
Auschwitz-Birkenau became a museum two years after the war ended and Smolen served as its director from 1955 to 1990. He continued to live in the town after his retirement, often attending the memorial ceremonies marking the camp’s liberation, AP reported.
Born on April 19, 1920 in the southern Polish town of Chorzow Stary, Smolen was a Pole involved in the anti-Nazi resistance who was arrested by the Germans in April 1941 and taken to Auschwitz in one of the early mass shipments of prisoners there. He left the camp on the last transport of prisoners evacuated by the Germans on January 18, 1945, nine days before its liberation.
AP said that Smolen attributed his survival to good health and extreme luck, and that he once explained that his decision to return to the camp to manage it as a way of honoring those who were killed there.
Pawel Sawicki, a spokesman for the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum, told AP that when the news of Smolen’s death was announced to Holocaust survivors who had gathered at the site, they fell silent for a minute in his honor.
Meanwhile, AP reported, Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg apologized on Friday for his nation’s role in arresting and deporting Jews after it was invaded by Nazi Germany. During the war, 772 Norwegian Jews and Jewish refugees were deported to Germany. Only 34 survived.
Speaking at a ceremony in Oslo attended by the last surviving Jew in a group of 532 deported from Norway in 1942, Stoltenberg said it’s time the nation acknowledges that politicians and other Norwegians took part in the Holocaust. He expressed “our deep regrets that this could have happened on Norwegian soil.”
Earlier this week, both the incoming and outgoing presidents of the European Parliament vowed “never again” in ceremonies in Brussels marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In a day filled with speeches, the one by incoming President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz was especially memorable; the German lawmaker told a special session of the legislative body, “I am born after the Second World War. But as a German representative I feel that I have a very specific responsibility, because what happened, and what was decided at the so-called Wannsee Conference was decided in the name of the German people, and I am a representative of the German people.
“The German people of today are not guilty, but responsible… to keep the memory and to never forget that what happened, happened in the name of our nation.”
Outgoing European Parliamentary President Jerzy Buzek also spoke at the gathering, explaining that as a man born in occupied Poland, a scant 60 kilometers from where the Auschwitz concentration camp was being built, he grew up and has returned to the area “with the same dreadfulness and sadness in [his] heart.”
During the ceremonies European Jewish Congress (EJC) President Moshe Kantor received France’s highest honor, the Order of the French Foreign Legion. Kantor noted in his acceptance speech that a new “regime of evil” is now rising, and warned that this “kingdom of evil” – the Islamic Republic of Iran – poses perhaps the greatest threat to the State of Israel that the Jews have faced since the Nazis.