DACHAU, Germany — It was a shocking, horrifying “beautiful day.”

Survivors and liberators alike recalled Sunday the horror of the Dachau concentration camp and the overwhelming relief of its liberation 70 years ago. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to keep alive the memory of Nazi crimes and give no quarter to present-day discrimination or anti-Semitism.

Dachau, near Munich, was the first concentration camp the Nazis set up – a few weeks after Adolf Hitler took power in 1933. Before it was liberated by U.S. troops on April 29, 1945, more than 200,000 people from across Europe were held there and over 40,000 prisoners died.

“When we entered the camp exactly 70 years ago, it was a terrible shock to see how much you, the survivors, had suffered from starvation, disease, brutality and freezing conditions,” Alan Lukens, who entered Dachau as an Army private in 1945, said at the anniversary ceremony at the former camp.

“But we will never forget your excitement and ours as we entered the camp and were overwhelmed by you, as you hugged us and brought out a hand-sewn American flag which you had hidden for the occasion,” said Lukens, who later became a U.S. diplomat.

Alongside the joy, he remembered that “SS snipers, after hanging out white surrender flags, shot several American GIs as we entered the camp.”

Former prisoner Jean Samuel remembered Dachau’s liberation as “the most beautiful day of my life.” He described inmates from many nations welcoming the American liberators at the camp’s assembly ground.

“An immense crowd acclaimed them, and by some sort of magic the flags of all the countries fluttered in the wind,” Samuel said. He recalled that, after showering and being de-loused, “I felt like a living being again.”

Returning to France at age 21, Samuel said he wanted to forget his experience and get on with his life. “I put Dachau in a corner of my memory,” he said.

After retiring, however, he decided to speak out as “a witness of the unspeakable” and fulfill a duty to keep the memories of what happened at Dachau alive.

That duty has been underlined by the still-unsolved theft of the wrought-iron camp gate bearing the slogan “Arbeit macht frei,” or “Work sets you free.”

A replica was installed Wednesday, the anniversary of the camp’s liberation, ahead of the commemoration traditionally held on the Sunday after April 29.