OSWIECIM, Poland -- It was 3 p.m. on Jan. 27, 1945, when the 322nd Rifle Division of the Soviet army entered Auschwitz, unaware of the inhumanity at the concentration camp where Nazis had killed more than 1.1 million people, the vast majority of them Jews.
Germans had abandoned the site, leaving 1.2 million pieces of clothing, 7.7 tons of human hair and other personal items stripped from prisoners. Allied soldiers came face-to-face with 7,000 of the weakest inmates not put on death marches -- and 600 decaying corpses -- as the Soviets closed in.
Exactly 75 years later, at exactly the same time, the picture was remarkably different at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers.
More than 200 survivors of the most infamous Holocaust site gathered on Monday before the entrance to the Birkenau camp's "gate of death," where cattle cars once arrived to deposit prisoners into gas chambers before their bodies were turned to ash in crematoriums.
They sat under a large, heated white tent with spotlights and big-screen TVs shining down on the train line. Once a symbol of impending death, the tracks were now a walkway to a stage where former prisoners and the presidents of Poland and the World Jewish Congress would deliver their thanks to survivors for their perseverance.
"We are in the factory of death," said Polish President Andrzej Duda as he opened the ceremony. "At no other time and in no other place was extermination carried out in a similar matter."
The commemoration at Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the outskirts of the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland, was the culminating event in a month of global Holocaust observations. They included a memorial at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, last week with world leaders and government representatives of several countries, as well as gatherings from Los Angeles to Amsterdam.
The meeting at Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum took place five years after the last major gathering of survivors at the site.
That year, some 300 survivors made the journey. Several have died since, while health concerns kept others from joining this time. The declining number of living survivors of the camp, which saw 1.3 million people pass through it during World War II, has made this year's observation even more important, said Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation chairman and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder.
"This may be the last ceremony of its kind for these heroes and victims, and one of the last times they will ever be able to speak publicly about their experiences," Lauder said.