Polish and Israeli presidents take part in March of the Living

Some 12,000 Jewish and Polish youth took part in this year's March of the Living on the site of the former Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp to honour Holocaust victims. The march ended with a ceremony in the Auschwitz camp's Birkenau section.

Attending the march were Polish President Andrzej Duda and President of Israel Reuven Rivlin.

The march takes place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and covers a three-kilometre route from the camp's infamous "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate to the Birkenau site, which housed the camp's two main gas chambers.

Polish President Andrzej Duda, speaking during the main ceremony held at the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Birkenau, said: "We have met in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the German death camp, which is a symbol and synonym of the Holocaust for the entire world and the whole of mankind."

"Nazi Germans committed the greatest crime of genocide in history here," the Polish head of state stressed, adding that the suffering experienced there by the Jewish people surpasses human comprehension and human imagination.

"By our presence here we want to express our feelings and pay homage to the victims," said the Polish president.

"My presence at the March of the Living together with the Israeli head of state is a token of tribute the Republic of Poland pays to the victims of German genocide and its concern for their commemoration. We Poles consider it our duty to carry testimony about the Holocaust to the world, and we did this while the Holocaust was still in progress," said Andrzej Duda.

President of the State of Israel Reuven Rivlin said in his speech: "We stand here and we know, that from this place we cannot hope for justice. In this place, where the ashes of our brothers and sisters were swallowed by the soil - no justice will grow. We do not expect justice in Europe that seeks - too quickly - to forget, to eradicate the memory, to deny."

The president recalled that "the Polish nation barely survived the Second World War. In September 1939 Poland had become the greatest field of death, murder and destruction in Europe." "It was an area under Nazi occupation, and the Poles were an oppressed people, living in fear. There was also a Polish underground resistance and a Polish Government in exile," said Rivlin.

The president of Israel noted that many Poles have been awarded the Righteous Among the Nations distinction for putting "their own lives and the lives of their dear ones at risk for the sake of others." "And they too are remembered, and we will remember and honour each of these men and women forever."

However, President Rivlin added: "True, it was Germany that established the camps, but our people were not murdered only in the camps. The members of our nation were betrayed by the people amongst whom they lived, in France, in Holland, and in Belgium. They were murdered by Ukrainians, Lithuanians and yes - also by Poles."

"Germany did not purchase the forgiveness of the Jews, just as no nation can legislate their forgetting. For no legislation can cover over the blood. No self-interest can cover over anti-Semitism, racism, hatred of the other. But those who are willing to bravely look straight into the past, those who are willing to bravely deal with the anti-Semitism and the racism that continue to raise their heads even today, will find in us allies, determined, true partners to pave the way that leads from remembrance to the future," said President Rivlin.

In conclusion, Rivlin said that "if the Polish people feel that their image has been distorted by the events of the Holocaust, it is more important that we cooperate, that we invest in education, that together we establish research institutes, that together we work on commemoration and remembrance, that together, we, Poles and Jews, study what happened, that we make sure that it will never happen again."

The March of the Living is an educational project in which Jews, mainly school and university students, visit sites of extermination created by the Germans in occupied Poland during the war. March participants find out about the history of their ancestors, meet their peers and Polish people who have been honoured by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations for saving Jews from the Holocaust.

The first March of the Living gathered about 1,500 Jews. Since 1996 the march has been held annually, with the largest number of participants turning out in 2005 on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The ceremony was attended by more than 20,000 people at the time, including delegations from almost 50 countries. So far about 250,000 people have attended the March of the Living.

Past participants included former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, former Israeli Presidents Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katsav and Shimon Peres, former Polish Prime Ministers Jerzy Buzek and Marek Belka, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.

The Germans established the Auschwitz camp in 1940, initially for the imprisonment of Poles. Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II, was established two years later. It became the site for the mass extermination of Jews. There was also a network of sub-camps in the complex. The Germans killed at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, including about 960,000 people of Jewish descent.

The camp was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. In 1947, the camp site was declared a national memorial site.

Thousands of Poles risked their lives to protect their Jewish neighbours. During WWII Poland was the only German-occupied country in Europe where aiding Jews was punishable by death.  

Poles are the largest single group of holders of the Righteous Among the Nations title, a prestigious distinction awarded by Israel's Yad Vashem Institute to individuals and families who risked their own lives and the lives of their loved ones to rescue Jews from the Holocaust. Out of more than 26,100 people who have received the Yad Vashem distinction worldwide, 6,700 were Polish citizens.