BERLIN — Ceremonies in Germany, Poland and around the world commemorated victims of the Third Reich with a survivor of the Nazi siege of Leningrad telling the German Parliament of the horrors that unfolded in the city during the blockade.
The commemorations for International Holocaust Remembrance Day come 69 years after Soviet soldiers swept into former death camp Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland to liberate about 7,000 surviving inmates.
They also coincided with the 70th anniversary of the end of the almost 900-day blockade of Leningrad, which is thought to have led to the deaths of about 1.5 million people. Leningrad reverted to its historic name of St Petersburg in 1991.
Life in Leningrad quickly turned into a nightmare with a lack of water and electricity, hunger, disease and daily bomb raids taking place before the city was liberated by Soviet forces in January 1944, Russian author Daniil Granin told the Bundestag.
"Death was someone who silently did his work in this war," he told German lawmakers including Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The keynote speech came after German President Joachim Gauck led lawmakers in a moment of silence to honour the victims of Nazism.
"I can only think with deep sorrow and shame about the war of extermination launched by Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union," Gauck wrote in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin marked the day by visiting the St Petersburg Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, which contains a mass grave for about a half million victims of the siege including one of Putin's brothers.
"It is our duty to remember the residents of that time and their victory over fascism," he said.
In addition to the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis, International Holocaust Remembrance Day also commemorates other victims of the Third Reich, including the mentally ill, homosexuals and Roma and Sinti.
"It is an occasion to remind us all of the need to continue fighting prejudice and racism in our own time," said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
In a letter to Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis said people must strive to let the Holocaust never happen again.
The public should "feel the strong desire to work hard so that such horrors, which are a shame for all of humanity, might never happen again," Francis was quoted by Vatican Radio as saying.
But as a reminder of today's small, but active, far-right movement in Germany and other European nations, posters denying the Holocaust were found in a town in the northern German state of Mecklenburg West Pomerania, police said.
The posters, with the words "International Day of the 6-million Lie", were found on the walls of several government buildings in the town of Grevesmuehlen. Denying the Holocaust is illegal in Germany.
Separately, 61 Israeli lawmakers – more than half the members of the Knesset – joined Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz to honour more than 1 million people who died there during World War II.
"Auschwitz will forever remain the black hole of the entire human history," said Isaac Herzog, a member of the Israeli Labor Party during the parliamentary visit to the former death camp.
Most of those killed at Auschwitz were Jews who were transported there from across Nazi-occupied Europe.
In a statement released by his office to mark the day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the world's attitude towards Israel is a continuation of thousands of years of anti-Semitism.
"(Despite) the attempt to deny the legitimacy of the (Jewish) state, we must struggle and demand our rights here," he said.
At a memorial service for Holocaust Remembrance Day at the United Nations headquarters in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for vigilance "against bigotry, extremist ideologies, communal tensions and discrimination against minorities."
Ban acknowledged the world has failed to prevent a repeat, despite the founding of the UN. "Tragedies from Cambodia to Rwanda to Srebrenica show that the poison of genocide still flows," he said.
At the same event, filmmaker Steven Spielberg called for action against future bloodshed.
"We must refuse paralysis," Spielberg said. "Genocide is evil, but I think perhaps the greatest evil is when people who have been spared the horrors permit themselves to despair. The despair of those who would otherwise act is evil's triumph."
Spielberg said the world cannot forget the horrors of Holocaust "until there are no more genocides, until the unthinkable becomes impossible."
"(Holocaust survivors') determined demand is that we engage fully with history, that the Holocaust remain with us in memory," Spielberg said.