By Maxine Dovere/JNS.org
OSWIECIM, Poland—The day is Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations to memorialize the lives of the six million victims of the Holocaust, including the 1.1 million Jews who died at Auschwitz. About half of the members of Israel’s 120-member Knesset, led by Yariv Levin, head of the governing coalition, and Isaac Herzog, leader of the opposition, arrive in Poland on an early-morning flight. From the airport, Polish police provide the Israeli delegation with a secure, unobstructed path to Auschwitz, the deadliest of the Nazi concentration camps. This cold winter day in Oswiecim marks the 69th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
On this day, all who walk into the camp through the gateway topped by the infamous admonishment “Arbeit Macht Frei”—“work makes you free”—are dressed to mitigate the cold. On this day, all who walk past the deceptively ordinary red brick barracks walk out. Inside the now heated barracks, evidence of the Nazi death machine remains: the shoes, the suitcases, the cooking pots, the shorn braids, the children’s toys, the dolls who survived the children who had loved them, and the book of names listing more than 4.2 million Jews killed by the Nazis.
Warm, comfortable buses filled with passengers eating lunch travel the short distance to Birkenau, there were a faded red boxcar that carried most of its passengers to their death still sits on the tracks. Hundred after hundred, those who remember the atrocities pour into white tents. The words of the survivors make ever more real the suffering they had known. Speakers of Hebrew, of Russian, of Polish, and other languages bring strong words of memory, and promises of remembrance.
Johnny Daniels, chairman of the Israeli nonprofit Mimaamakim (meaning “from the depths”), organizes the commemoration events of Jan. 27. Israeli taxpayers cover the cost of sending the Knesset delegation—about $130,000—and private donations subsidize the remainder.
How different this journey is from the one taken by millions of Jews seven decades ago. The Knesset members, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces carrying the blue-and-white banner of the Jewish state, Israelis young and old, Americans, Europeans, members of the Sejm (the Polish Parliament), diplomats, delegations of the religious and the secular, three members of the United States Congress (including House Majority Leader U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor), and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee—they all come to memorialize those murdered. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) speaks of her sorrow for those lost.
Noah Kliger is part of the delegation of 24 Holocaust survivors from Israel. He speaks of saying Kaddish on corpses that remained in a boxcar abandoned by the Nazis as they ran from the Allied armies. He recalls praying for the promise of bread, and then learning that the ration he received had come from someone whose father was among the corpses. Zofia Posmysz also survived the Holocaust. “We are still here,” she says. “We will not forget.”
MK Herzog reminds, “The voice of Auschwitz calls. We can rely on our strength to build a new society.”
The walk to the memorial plaza at Birkenau is a cold one. The elderly survivors are given chairs and are wrapped in blankets. The mournful melody of the Kaddish rings through the cold January air. Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, offers comfort by reading the 23rd Psalm. Rabbis and priests, together, offer prayers. Memorial candles bring points of light to the gray afternoon. Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, proclaims the fulfillment of the dream of a Jewish state.
The memorial ends. A short distance from buses waiting to leave this place of horrors, Jews gather to pray—and then, to dance. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau, the son of a young Holocaust survivor, dances to celebrate life after the Mincha service in Birkenau.
The day of memory continues with a dialogue among Knesset members, their counterparts of the Polish Sejm, and international diplomats. Many offer personal, often emotional, memories. Some speak of the loss suffered by the Jewish people; some accept responsibility for the actions—or lack of action—of their countrymen.
Israeli-born New York resident Elie Hirschfeld and his wife Dr. Sarah Hirschfeld are among those who witness the Jan. 27 commemorations at Auschwitz.
“Those of our generation knew the survivors,” Elie Hirschfeld tells JNS.org. “To us, they are real. We are here to connect the past with the future. We are the generation that just teach our children, ‘never forget, never again.’”
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