The commemoration of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp last month attracted much more attention than the liberation itself 60 years earlier.
This year, politicians, statesmen and survivors gathered at the site to recall the moment of freedom and also to reflect on the many meanings of "Auschwitz". 60 years ago, on 27 January 1945, it was the Red Army which arrived to find a camp evacuated by the SS and inhabited solely by a few thousand emaciated survivors, too ill to embark on the death marches toward the West.
Among those few thousand fortunate was the Italian inmate Primo Levi, who was to record his experiences in his classic If This Is a Man, a text with which millions of readers around the world are familiar.
Levi was one of the key figures in drawing the world's attention to what happened in an otherwise nondescript, swampy corner of Silesia which the Germans had annexed to their Reich.
When the Red Army arrived, few knew of the horrors which had taken place in the little town which its Polish inhabitants called Oswiecim. But after the war Levi helped draw the world's attention to the sheer scale of Auschwitz as well as to the profundity of the evil for which it became infamous.
Auschwitz was one of six death camps on Polish soil, along with Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor, but today it stands out from the others. That has partly to do with its massive size - what began as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, built by adding guard towers and barbed wire to existing Polish army barracks, grew as the war went on.
In anticipation of Operation Barbarossa the site was expanded to accommodate Soviet POWs; industrial facilities were constructed at nearby Monowitz - which Levi had the dubious fortune to call home - so that Auschwitz's slave labour could fuel the German war effort.
Most chillingly, though, Auschwitz grew to include the little village of Brzezinka - in German Birkenau - just a short distance from the original camp. It was in the first camp, Auschwitz I, that the Germans experimented with the use of a chemical called Zyklon B to murder people, but it was at Birkenau - Auschwitz II - that they transformed murder into an industrial process in large gas chambers and crematoria. People from all over Europe, from as far away as France and Greece, were transported by train to Birkenau for the express purpose of being murdered there.
This was the fate of well over a million human beings, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, and simply because they were Jewish.
When the full extent of the horrors was revealed after the war, it became clear that Auschwitz must be preserved as a memorial site. The Polish parliament indeed announced as early as 1947 that most of the Auschwitz site would be converted into a memorial.
As a "national" memorial Auschwitz did what national memorials do the world over, that is, it served to give Poland a sense of national identity grounded in an interpretation of Polish history.
And as so often - we Australians don't have to look far to find other examples - it was an interpretation of history based on a sense of national martyrdom. Thus when the Poles remembered the dead of World War II, they tended to think of the 6 million Polish dead (of whom roughly half were Jewish) rather than the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. And in Communist Poland, they tended to think first of all of those persecuted by the Nazis for political reasons, not those killed for their ascribed race.
With the collapse of Communism the past suddenly became unpredictable. The trouble with monuments and memorials is that they don't readily allow changes of perspective on the past. Instead, they set the past in stone, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense. To prepare Auschwitz for the post-communist world was a fraught and politically sensitive undertaking. The museum at Auschwitz I had to be redesigned, the memorial plaques at Birkenau wiped clean and given new content.
Nowadays the memorial receives huge numbers of visitors, not just from Poland and the old eastern bloc but from all over the world.
Many come from neighbouring Germany, where the day of the liberation of Auschwitz has for a decade or so been a national remembrance day. It was a matter of no surprise that the German President was among those who attended the commemorations at Auschwitz this year.
For all its changes over the 60 years since it was a death camp, Auschwitz seems to attract ever more international attention because it offers those who visit it and those who know of it some moral certainties. In the simple and terrible moral universe that was Auschwitz, it is easy to understand who were the victims and who were the perpetrators.
Compare that with the moral uncertainties of our own times, when there is a great ambivalence about
the behaviour of many nations, including our own. What exactly might constitute a just war, or how one should behave toward the victims of oppressive regimes, are topics of vigorous debate.
In this climate, Auschwitz helps to give us our moral bearings. Beyond the rituals of remembrance, though, the trick is to make the past truly meaningful in the present.