OSWIECIM, Poland -- At first, the red-brick barracks look almost respectable, numbered like normal houses along tree-lined paths. But then the gas chamber reveals itself through the wintry fog, and the death wall where prisoners were stripped and shot, and the soil and ponds still full of teeth and crumbled bones from incinerated corpses.
The death factory where the Nazis murdered 1Â½ million people went idle 60 years ago Thursday, but Auschwitz, ground zero of human savagery, still has the power to stun its visitors into silence.
"For me, this is a grave, not a museum," said Shalom Gross, a 57-year-old Israeli who lost more than 80 relatives to the Holocaust on his mother's side alone.
He held three Hebrew holy books. "I have come here to pray," he said.
Auschwitz today is many things at once: an emblem of evil, a site of historical remembrance, a vast cemetery. With its neighbor Birkenau and the town of Oswiecim, the Polish name of Auschwitz, it is also a place where life goes on, where people go to work, shop for groceries, and try to make a living in a depressed coal-mining region where unemployment runs to 19 percent.
Some of the barracks serve as offices for the scholars and administrators at the memorial site, who walk past the gas chamber and barbed wire as they go to and from work. A room once occupied by an SS guard is preserved, down to the photo of Adolf Hitler on the wall.
"It is strange to work here, where we don't have contact with beauty," said Franciszek Piper, the head of the museum's historical research department, whose spare office is on the second floor of Block 23. "But if people in Poland wished to live far from the places where people were killed, persecuted, where the soil is soaked with the blood of those killed by the Nazis, then everyone would have to leave Poland."
The 60th anniversary carries special weight, because few survivors are expected to be alive for the 70th. Vice President Dick Cheney will attend Thursday's ceremony at Auschwitz with Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Jacques Chirac of France and others. President Bush visited Auschwitz in 2003.
An estimated 600,000 people visit the camp each year to learn or to grieve or to reflect on the past. Most move about in quiet reverence, yet even here, there's occasional levity: Smiling tourists pose under the infamous main gate with its cynical slogan "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (work makes you free), or visitors laugh as they line up to see a documentary about mass murder.
Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, says he has often seen such behavior at Auschwitz. "It's exactly the people who are smiling that you want there," he said. "While it's disconcerting to see, the experience will play back in their heads -- two months or two years later -- and have an effect."
More than 90 percent of the victims from 1940 until the Soviet Army liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945, were Jews, and the rest were Gypsies, Polish political opponents, Soviet POWs, Catholics, and homosexuals. They died in gas chambers, from starvation, medical experiments, disease, or forced labor.
Auschwitz is not one camp but two: Auschwitz I, built in an abandoned Polish military base, and Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, a much bigger complex that went up later about 2 miles away to expedite the Nazis' Final Solution.
Birkenau shocks more profoundly, a flat, vast space still ringed by the silver birch trees (birken in German) that gave the place its name. Crematoria lie in rubble as a reminder of the Nazis' effort to hide their crimes as their defeat loomed.
Many of the visitors are Israeli schoolchildren brought here to reinforce the ethos of "never again." Many more come from Germany, alone or in groups organized by schools, churches, and unions to confront their nation's past.
This month, a German service workers' union brought young and middle-aged adults to visit the camp and meet with a survivor. After a day at the camp, they gathered to reflect on their experience.
"I cannot comprehend the cruelty, how our parents and grandparents could have gone along with this," said Jochen Schuk. "Or even today how people can still cling to ideologies of hatred."
Auschwitz is held up as a moral lesson in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism, but it has also become a potent symbol for those seeking other meanings.
For Poland, invaded and occupied for five years by Germany, then ruled by communist dictatorship for more than 40 years, having Auschwitz on its soil is particularly painful. The Nazis treated the Poles as an inferior race, dotted their land with death camps, and murdered about 3 million non-Jewish Poles. Yet it often is tainted with guilt by geography.
Last year, when a Canadian television station referred to Treblinka as a "Polish concentration camp," Poland complained to the Canadian government.
So sensitive is Poland to accusations of anti-Semitism that visitors to Auschwitz are forbidden to make recordings of guided tours. Some have edited the recordings to "prove that Poles are anti-Semites, even those who work at the Auschwitz museum," said Marzena Konopka-Klus, a camp guide.
A particularly uneasy question is whether Auschwitz is primarily a Jewish experience, or a universal one.
One of the most wrenching disputes involved a Carmelite nunnery next to the camp. Jewish groups protested that it was an intrusion on their sacred burial place. Polish-born Pope John Paul II intervened in 1993 and got the nuns to move out.
Jews and Christians have quarreled over crosses put up around Auschwitz. A discotheque in a tannery near the camp where prisoners worked and died was shut following international protests. Plans for a small shopping mall across the street from the Auschwitz museum were also scaled down after Jewish groups complained.