Thousands gather to remember Holocaust

Thousands of Jews and other people from around the world gathered in southern Poland on Thursday to march through the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in memory of the millions who died in the Holocaust.

Six specially chartered trains and several hundred coaches began arriving early on Thursday at Oswiecim, the town that gave its Germanicised name to the Auschwitz camp.

Under a grey sky and occasional hisses of rainfall, the crowd of thousands made its way to the main camp at Auschwitz to wait for the start of the march at 1pm local time.

“We expected 18 000 people, and 20 000 have come from 50 different countries,” said Vachman Kaidar, one of the march’s organisers.

Among them was Parisian Jonathan Gottlieb (21), of Polish-Jewish origin, who lost his great-grandfather, Haim, in the Holocaust and wore a photograph of him on the lapel of his anorak.

“While I was on the train, I tried to imagine what the prisoners brought to Auschwitz could have lived through,” he said, overcome by emotion.

The marchers came from Australia, Canada, Greece, Mexico, the United States, Poland, South Africa and beyond. They were young and old, Jewish and non-Jewish, all preparing to make their way to the Birkenau sector of the camp for a ceremony to remember the victims of the Holocaust.

Jurek Sternfeld (66) was born in Warsaw, six months before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II, the most deadly conflict in history.

His immediate family survived the war by fleeing in September 1939 to the Soviet Union. He now lives in Australia.

“I think this is the right thing, as far as the future is concerned, to remember what happened.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the blackest point in the history of humankind. A whole group of people was deliberately being wiped out.

“This must not happen again and this is what motivates me to come here,” he said.

The crowd swelled inside Auschwitz, from where the marchers were expected to set off on the 3km route to Birkenau, where a memorial ceremony was to be held in the midst of the rubble of the purpose-built interconnecting gas chambers and crematoria.

At the ceremony, they were to hear speeches by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka and former Auschwitz inmate, Jewish scholar and writer Elie Wiesel, all doubtlessly driving home the message that the world has a duty to remember the Holocaust, and never to let it happen again.

At least 1,1-million men, women and children, most of them Jews, died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the key extermination sites for Nazi Germany’s “final solution”, which aimed to wipe out Europe’s 11-million Jews.

A group of Roman Catholic schoolteachers from the US stood outside the entrance to the main camp, waiting to go through the stringent security checks.

“The march is a chance for us to show that we remember and to be here on such a historical occasion—the 60th anniversary of the end of the war,” said Toby Harkleroad, a teacher from Washington, DC.

“We’ll take the message back to our students and everyone we meet in our lives, to make sure we never forget and it never happens again.

“Especially as Catholics, we have to look back at the role we might have played in setting the world up for such a tragedy happening, what we did or did not do,” he said.

The Nazis exterminated six million European Jews, half of them from mainly Catholic Poland, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before World War II. The March of the Living began in 1988 to counter voices denying the Holocaust ever existed.

From its start, when it gathered only Jewish youngsters, the march has grown to include adults, Holocaust survivors, students and, for the past few years, non-Jews.

For Marie-Christine and Claude, from France’s Bordeaux region, the message the event tries to get across is that the Holocaust must never be allowed to happen again.

“Neither of us is Jewish, but what happened at Auschwitz was universal suffering,” Marie-Christine said.

“Every human being can feel it. That’s why we’re here: to show our solidarity with their suffering,” they said at a memorial event on the eve of the march.

“You can study it at school, you can see the films, read the books, but you have to go to Auschwitz to really understand it,” said Claude, who said she will pass on the message to her children and grandchildren.

“They have to know. There is a certain inertia among the young, even though there are terrible things happening in the world. The next generations have to know.”—Sapa-AFP

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