Members of the Knesset pose at the entrance of Auschwitz concentration camp.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The largest-ever delegation of MKs, plus hundreds of Israelis and Jewish politicians from around the world are scheduled to head to Poland early Monday morning for a joint Israeli-Polish ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) and opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) will lead the delegation, as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein pulled out of the trip following the death of his wife on Friday.
“Seven decades after millions of members of our nation were cruelly murdered by the Nazis, it is my privilege and responsibility to lead the largest delegation of the Knesset, the parliament of the independent Jewish state, to the valley of death of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Levin said Sunday. “We will reach the gates of this horrible place with survivors who went through the inferno, in order to honor the memory of the victims and say clearly: Am Yisrael Hai [the people of Israel lives].”
Herzog added that “there are no words to describe the powerful feelings we have in expressing the spirit and opinions of our democracy. We are going to remember, to remind, to learn and teach, to light a candle in memory and say a prayer.”
Over half of the Knesset – 60 parliamentarians, including four ministers and four deputy ministers – will attend the ceremony, accompanied by 24 Holocaust survivors and their family members. The Israeli delegation will also include 250 public figures, including State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and Yad Vashem director Avner Shalev.
A delegation of European MPs brought by the Israel Jewish Congress and European Friends of Israel will include lawmakers from France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Spain, Poland and the UK, including deputy parliament speakers from Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Lithuania.
The US delegation will be led by House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), who will be joined by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) and Patrick McHenry (R-North Carolina). Canadian Minister for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney also plans to attend.
The event is the brainchild of Jonny Daniels, a political consultant and founder and executive-director of From The Depths (FTD), an organization with a mission to bring lessons of the past to future generations by working to help Holocaust survivors and preserve Jewish sites in Poland.
The Israeli delegation will take a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp on Monday, before participating in the Polish government’s annual ceremony with more than 1,000 attendees in Auschwitz, during which Herzog will speak. Then the group will walk to Birkenau, where the traditional kaddish and El Malei Rahamim Jewish prayers will be recited.
Later, an inter-parliamentary gathering will take place in Krakow, led by Levin and Deputy Polish Parliamentary Speaker Cezary Grabarczyk and featuring one-minute speeches by lawmakers from Israel, Poland, the US, Canada and other countries.
After that the Israeli delegation, Polish lawmakers and most of the other visiting legislators will take part in a dinner sponsored by FTD and the World Zionist Organization, featuring performances by renowned opera singer Andrea Bocelli, Israeli singer Amir Benayoun with a special song written for the occasion and Cantor Haim Adler. They will be accompanied by the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Israeli conductor Rafi Bitton.
“This is going to be an incredible, memorable day,” Daniels remarked on Sunday, speaking from Poland. “The feeling in Poland is very positive. There is a huge level of interest, and the locals understand what we’re doing and are happy with it. This will be different from any other trip [to Auschwitz]. It will bridge gaps between Israel and Poland. It was planned hand in hand with the Polish government.”
As for Israelis, Daniels said, “MKs don’t yet realize how impactful this will be. Visiting Auschwitz is a life-changing experience and this is the first time for many of them. You can read [about the Holocaust], but being in Auschwitz with survivors is truly remarkable. It’s a historic event.”
The FTD founder expressed satisfaction at the subzero temperatures in Poland, saying one survivor called it “Auschwitz weather.”
“If we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes for one second, I reached my goal. If we in our coats will be freezing, imagine how they felt in their pajamas,” Daniels added.
FTD is funded mostly by US billionaire Stewart Rahr, who donated $600,000, but the Knesset will be paying for MKs’ air and land transportation as well as for food and tour guides for the delegation.
Rahr’s contribution will also go toward FTD’s future activities, including providing for Holocaust survivors over age 100 for the rest of their lives and a project with the Milken Community High School in Los Angeles in which students will visit survivors regularly, install panic buttons in their homes and film them talking about their stories.