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Merkel to visit Auschwitz for first time

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Berlin (AFP)

Angela Merkel will visit the Auschwitz death camp in Poland on Friday for the first time in her 14 years as chancellor, as Germany grapples with a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

Merkel will become only the third German chancellor to visit, with her highly symbolic trip coming ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops on January 27, 1945.

The visit "is a particularly important signal of attention and solidarity at a time when Auschwitz survivors are victims of anti-Semitic insults and hate-filled emails," said Christoph Heubner, deputy chairman of the Auschwitz International Committee.

Ahead of the trip, Germany's federal states are expected to approve a 60 million euro ($66 million) donation for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which is marking 10 years since it was set up.

The 65-year-old Merkel, who was born nine years after the end of World War II, will be accompanied by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and a survivor of the camp.

Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, will also be taking part in the visit.

Merkel will begin the visit by walking through the camp's infamous gate, which bears the chilling Nazi message "Arbeit macht frei" (Work will set you free).

She will hold a minute's silence by the Death Wall where thousands of prisoners were shot dead.

Merkel will also give a speech during the visit, as well as laying a wreath at the nearby Birkenau camp.

- 'Do something' -

Merkel has called the Holocaust a "break with civilisation" and has voiced concern about the rise of anti-Semitism and the far right in Germany.

The visit comes two months after an attack aimed at a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle in which two people were killed.

Police figures show that anti-Semitic offences rose by almost 10 percent in Germany last year from the previous year to 1,646 -- the highest level in a decade.

Violent attacks went up more than 60 percent.

"We have to tell people today: Do not be quiet, do something," Esther Bejarano, a 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor, told the weekly Der Spiegel.

Bejarano, who lost her parents and sister in Auschwitz, said she was afraid that history "will repeat itself".

Survivors like Bejarano are becoming few and far between. Two of the most prominent survivors -- French women's rights champion Simone Veil and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel of the United States -- have died in recent years.

In total, around 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and anti-Nazi fighters.

Many were killed the same day they arrived at the camp.

Merkel follows in the footsteps of previous German chancellors Helmut Schmidt, who came in 1977, and Helmut Kohl, who visited in 1989 and 1995.

She has, however, visited several of the former camps in Germany over many years and has been to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre five times.

In 2008, she became the first German leader to address the Israeli parliament. In that speech, she spoke of the "shame" that Germans still feel.

- '180-degree shift' in remembrance -

Few countries have done as much to memorialise the victims of Nazi crimes as Germany, and the capital Berlin is dotted with monuments to them.

But the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland party, some of whose members have been accused of using anti-Semitic rhetoric, has called for a rethink of Germany's culture of atonement for Nazi crimes.

Senior AfD lawmaker Alexander Gauland has said the Nazi era was only "a speck of bird shit" in German history.

Another top member, Bjoern Hoecke, has called for a "180-degree shift" in the culture of remembrance.

The timing of the visit is also significant because of questions over Merkel's political future as tensions persist within the governing coalition.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which first reported on the visit last month, said she wanted to make the trip ahead of any potential political crisis.

Merkel wants to step down at the end of her mandate in 2021 but there is a chance that the date could be brought forward if her junior coalition partners, the Social Democrats, pull out of the government.

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