AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU – Before a particularly emotional 30th March of the Living from Auschwitz to Birkenau, President Reuven Rivlin and his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Sebastian Duda, had a meeting on the Polish Holocaust law on Thursday, yet failed to reach an agreement, sources close to Rivlin said.
“No deal was reached on the Polish Holocaust law between the two presidents in their meeting,” one source said. “The meeting and their lunch were held in a positive atmosphere but it was unfruitful. It was like a dialogue between the deaf.”
Although Duda signed the law making it a criminal offense to blame Poles for complicity in the Holocaust, he noted that it was under judicial review, signaling that there is a possibility it could be revoked.
Meanwhile, the two presidents led some 15,000 people from 50 countries around the world who participated in the 3.2-kilometer March of the Living on a balmy Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, organizers said.
They were joined by the heads of all of Israel’s security services, including the IDF, Israel Police, Mossad and Shin Bet, as well as thousands of youth and hundreds of Holocaust survivors, despite persistent rumors that the security men had canceled their trips due to the situation in Syria.
Rivlin in his speech noted that more than a million Jews had been murdered at Auschwitz, the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.
He also decried the rise of antisemitism across Europe over recent years. “We have marched from the Shoah to Tekuma [redemption],” Rivlin declared, echoing the theme of the march. “Am Yisrael Hai [the nation of Israel lives]!”
"We stand here and we know that we cannot hope for justice," Rivlin said. "We do not expect justice in a Europe that seeks too quickly to forget to eradicate the memory, to destroy evidence. But our memory, the memory of the Jewish people, is the anthesis of the haste of the Nazis. We are a nation that remembers, our memory is patient. Engraved in our memory are those who murdered and then inherited, those who after the war had ended thought that Jewish blood was cheap and forsaken and so they slaughtered those Jews who returned to their homes. True, they were men and women who put their own lives and the lives of their loved ones at risk for the sake of others and they too will be remembered and honored forever... but our people were not murdered only in the camps. The members of our people were betrayed by the people among who they lived, in France, Holland and Belgium. They were murdered by Ukrainians, Lithuanians and, yes, also Poles."
Regarding the Polish law, he said: “A dark shadow has been cast on our relations even if at a bilateral level we understand one another. We know there is public opinion and sometimes the desire to please it and sometimes even to change laws to that effect, but in this case we must all wait for the interpretation of your court in the hope that this cloud will disappear.”
Addressing Duda directly, Rivlin said: “Today, 75 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and 70 years since the establishment of the State of Israel, I came here to march together with you, Mr. President, with Holocaust survivors and the heads of the Israeli security establishment in the March of the Living. This country generated the soul of the Jewish people, and sadly, also the biggest Jewish graveyard. You cannot erase such a history, so rich, so full, so painful.
“Israel is closely following the academic and political debate in Poland about remembrance and responsibility. We have great respect for the internal inquiring and the soul-searching of the Polish people. But there is also a deep disagreement that we discussed.
“It is because of the special Jewish relationship with Poland that we demand that Poland continues to be committed to comprehensive and unrestricted research regarding the events and processes of the Holocaust period. This was agreed on between the two countries and it is worthy that this takes place. Statesmen have a responsibility to mold the future. Historians have the responsibility to describe the past and research history. One should not deviate from one field to the other.”
Duda, introduced as “a true friend of Israel,” decried “the German perpetrators of the worst genocide in history.”
“The suffering experienced by the Jewish people is beyond comprehension,” he said. “But our joint presence here today is proof of the victory of life over death.”
He said half of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis were of Polish descent, just as half of the population of the nearby town of Oscwiecim had once been Jews.
Without referring directly to the Polish law, Duda said that “a big number” of Poles had done all they could to save Jews, and Poles and Jews had lived together peacefully “until this coexistence was brutally interrupted by the Germans.”
The lesson of the Holocaust for both Israel and Poland, he said, was the need for “a strong state.”
“Today we look with respect, admiration and affinity at the State of Israel,” he said. “The Nazi annihilation plan failed. The Jewish people has survived.”
YAD VASHEM World Council chairman Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, blessed all the marchers, including Rivlin, Duda and all his fellow survivors.
“When we started the March of the Living 30 years ago, there were about 700 students, and altogether 1,300 people,” Lau said. “At the end of the march, I stood with my friend from Buchenwald Elie Wiesel and Benjamin Netanyahu, and we said to each other, ‘Who will remember this in future years?’” Lau noted that he and Wiesel had been liberated almost exactly 73 years ago, on April 11, 1945.
“The Holocaust will never be forgotten, for many reasons. Our children will remember it,” he said, adding that the fall of the Iron Curtain, the many Holocaust museums – especially Yad Vashem – and books such as the Diary of Anne Frank, allow for the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust for all time.
He added that, unfortunately, antisemitism is the real reason that the Holocaust will be remembered.
“Why do I believe that the history of the Holocaust will never be forgotten? The world will never enable us to forget. They will always remind us that you are a Jew... If the leader of Iran is denying the Holocaust, the younger citizens of Iran are asking, ‘What was the Holocaust?’” Lau added: “The Holocaust did not start here in Auschwitz-Birkenau.Maybe it came here to a climax that mankind never saw before, but it started long before.”
He thanked the Polish government for supporting the 30th March of the Living and preserving the memory of the murder of Jews at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum.
He called Duda “the greatest leader of the Polish government today,” and urged him to continue to remind his people of the Holocaust.
Israeli, Polish presidents march to commemorate Holocaust victims (REUTERS)
“The Polish government didn’t establish Auschwitz-Birkenau, and although there were collaborators, there were 6,700 Polish Righteous of the Nations who saved Jews, more than any other country,” Lau said.
“A JOURNEY of 1,000 miles begins with a single step,” said Canadian march participant Eynat Katz, whose parents were the children of Holocaust survivors from Poland, recalling her first March of the Living. “I had to see for myself, even at a young age, who I was and who I wanted to be.”
Today, she said, after marching with her 17-year-old daughter, Tali, she realized how the march had shaped her life and strengthened her commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. “Today I will pass the torch to my own daughter, to be the fourth generation, a great-granddaughter of Holocaust survivors.”
Tali Katz said: “As I look out into this massive crowd and look at the Holocaust survivors who once stood here, could you believe that today we would stand here together and sing Israeli songs, together with the Israeli president, the Polish president, and the [IDF] chief of staff? Together, I think, we all represent the victory over Nazism.”
Dr. Shmuel Rosenman, the co-founder and chairman of the March of the Living, said that the marchers were “pledging ‘Never Again’ and committing to build a better world.
“My urgent plea is that I ask each one of you to make a sincere pledge for a better world so that no other nation should experience an Auschwitz,” he said. "The recent intensification of antisemitism and racism from the global community highlights the importance of the March of the Living, which provides vital Holocaust education and helps to perpetuate the memory of victims and heroes of this dark period in history."
Israeli singer Shlomo Artzi, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, passionately performed two haunting songs composed about the Holocaust, causing many in the huge crowd to shed a tear.
“Shalom to everyone, especially the young people and the Holocaust survivors,” Artzi said. “I don’t have the words to describe my feeling here. It’s my first time at this tragic place.
“I want to sing in memory of all those who were here, including my mother, Miriam, who lost her first husband and her son. But in spite of all this, she did not give up on life, married my father, came to Israel, and gave birth to me and my sister, Nava. If there is a chance that my mother and sister, who died this year, are hearing my words, I am sure they are weeping, too.”
Six torches were lit in memory of the six million murdered, the Righteous of the Nations, Holocaust survivors and their children, and those who fought in the resistance. They were lit interalia by Duda, Rivlin, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Israel Police chief Insp.-Gen. Roni Alsheich, KKL-JNF chairman Danny Atar and Limmud FSU leaders Matthew Bronfman and Aaron Frenkel, whose mother survived Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A seventh torch was lit in honor of the State of Israel, after which the singing of “El Malei Rachamim” was led by IDF Chief Cantor Shai Abramson, while the Kaddish mourners’ prayer was said, tearfully, by Rabbi Lau.