7th torch added to ceremony to honor victims of October 7

At Auschwitz march, participants rally around concern over hostages and antisemitism

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, the March of the Living sees unprecedented political action with calls for the release of those held in Gaza, as well as some anti-Israel provocation

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Participants display placards reading "Bring him Home" and showing pictures of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza at the annual March of The Living to honor the victims of the Holocaust at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau on the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on May 6, 2024 (Wojtek Radwanski / AFP)
Participants display placards reading "Bring him Home" and showing pictures of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza at the annual March of The Living to honor the victims of the Holocaust at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau on the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on May 6, 2024 (Wojtek Radwanski / AFP)

OŚWIĘCIM, Poland – A shofar call rang out at Auschwitz on Monday, signaling the start of the annual commemorative march by thousands of Jews to Birkenau, part of the former Nazi death camp, situated about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

Yet instead of the solemn silence that usually characterizes this moment of the March of the Living through the camp near Krakow, the shofar prompted a burst of chants by dozens of students from Canada.

“Bring them back,” chanted members of the Canadian delegation, sandwiched between the Belgian and the Panamanian ones, as they began to march. They held up posters of hostages held by terrorists in Gaza, and the chants spread across the delegations, triggering applause from participants.

This strong focus on the aftermath of October 7 at the start of this year’s Holocaust commemoration event at Auschwitz, held on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, continued to define the event throughout.

It reflected both Israel’s centrality to how Jews commemorate the Holocaust, and the incorporation of the trauma felt by many Jews over October 7 into the greater, defining one caused by the Nazi genocide.

The International March of the Living, the nonprofit that organizes the march at Auschwitz for Jewish youth movements and others, acknowledged the event’s focus on October 7, when about 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted 252.

People holding Israeli flags pose for a photo at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, May 6, 2024 during the annual Holocaust remembrance event, the ‘March of the Living’ in memory of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust victims. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

This year’s March of the Living, in which some 8,000 people participated, “holds profound significance, as the horrors of the past intertwine with the present ongoing nightmare faced by […] Israel,” Phyllis Greenberg Heideman, the president of International March of the Living, said in a statement.

October 7 determined much of the content at the event, as well as the main controversy — a small anti-Israel protest staged by nine activists along the march’s route.

On stage, during a closing ceremony that followed the march, six Israeli Holocaust survivors whose lives were directly affected by the October 7 onslaught lit one of seven commemorative torches.

Usually, there are only six torches — one per million Jews murdered in the Holocaust — but organizers added a seventh in recognition of the October 7 onslaught and its victims.

Daniel Luz, a France-born survivor of both the Holocaust and October 7, spoke to the participants, telling them he recalled feeling a “fear greater even than in the Holocaust” as Hamas terrorists murdered people and burned homes in his Kibbutz Be’eri community.

He said that he and the other survivors lit the torch for the victims of both the Holocaust and of October 7, his voice cracking with emotion.

Holocaust survivors attend a ceremony at the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau during the annual Holocaust remembrance event, the “March of the Living” in memory of the six million Holocaust victims in Oswiecim, Poland, May 6, 2024 (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Other torch lighters included Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi of Israel who survived the Holocaust in Poland; Marc Schneier, a promoter of Jewish-Muslim dialogue from the US, and Doron Almog, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Also attending the march were relatives of hostages and former hostages held in Gaza, including Thomas Hand, whose daughter Emily was abducted and later released in a November deal.

En route to the ceremony, a handful of protesters with Palestinian flags and a sound amplification system staged the first anti-Israel rally in the March of the Living’s 36 years of existence.

They accused Israel of perpetrating “another genocide,” speaking from a parking lot overlooking the halfway point of the march.

Wearing keffiyehs around their necks or on their faces, the protesters shouted to the marchers, who were mostly not Israeli: “Are you not ashamed of what your government is doing?”

Demonstrators with Palestinian flags and a banner reading ‘Stop Genocide in Gaza’ on the sidelines of the annual March of the Living to honor the victims of the Holocaust at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau on the site of the former Auschwitz concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, on May 6, 2024 (Wojtek Radwanski / AFP)

The main organizer of the protest, Alena Palichleb, who said her father is Palestinian and whose mother is Polish, lectured the marchers on how they should behave at Auschwitz.

“What are you cheering for? Why are you waving flags here? This is a cemetery, the epicenter of a genocide, show some respect! Your mothers are watching!” she shouted.

She told The Times of Israel: “You should see the mess and dirt that Israeli visitors leave here.”

The marchers, who often sing Hebrew-language songs about revival during the procession that celebrates the Jewish people’s survival, responded with a thunderous rendition of the Israeli national anthem and jeers. “There’s no such thing as Palestine,” one marcher shouted until another hushed them and told them to “avoid provocations.”

Several Polish policemen surrounded the anti-Israel protesters. One police officer told The Times of Israel the protest was legal and pre-approved.

People demonstrate with Palestinian flags on the sidelines of the route where Hungarian youths take part in the 20th ‘March of The Living’ on the grounds of the former Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland, on May 6, 2024 (Ferenc ISZA / AFP)

Alena’s father promised this reporter that “we will return to Palestine.”

He added: “October 7 was the beginning of our role, of our country to be free, Palestine,” adding: “We have nothing against Jews.” Palestinians, he also said, “would never accept a Jewish state, but also not an Islamic state, only a democratic state.”

The man also seemed to suggest that Hamas terrorists treated hostages kindly and that reports of atrocities were made up by mainstream media.

Bella Haim, a Holocaust survivor at the march whose grandson Yotam was abducted to Gaza by Hamas and killed there accidentally by Israeli troops, called the protest “shocking.”

It was “a vivid display of what we hear about, the antisemitism out of control on campuses all over the West,” she said.

In a statement, the International March of the Living wrote: “The half a dozen protestors who perversely saw this as an opportunity to voice hatred against Israel and the Jewish people serve as a timely reminder of the importance of Holocaust eduction and remembrance.”

Bella Haim tours the Auschwitz-1 former Nazi camp in Poland on May 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

One of the dozens of Muslim marchers at the event, Youssef Elzahari, also condemned the protest.

“They just tried, unsuccessfully, to hijack an event commemorating the murder of six million people. I’m not sure what they think they’re achieving,” said Elzahari, 30, from Marrakech, Morocco. He was a member of a delegation from the Sharaka nonprofit, which promotes ties between Israel and Arab- and Muslim-majority countries.

Also participating were members of a delegation from Atidnah, which focuses on Arab-Jewish understanding in Israel. They wore shirts emblazoned with the logo of their group and the Israeli flag.

The many students at the march said that campus antisemitism and anti-Israel vitriol, which exploded after October 7, strengthened their resolve to unite and fight back, and also attend the march.

“It’s all part of the same thing: The hostages were abducted for the same reason people were murdered here: for being Jewish,” one student from Canada, Evelyn Gorodetzky, told The Times of Israel.

She called the situation on campuses “terrible” when asked about antisemitism there. “But we’re vocal and we fight,” said Gorodetzky.

Benjamin Signer marches at the former Nazi camp Auschwitz, in Poland, on May 6, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Benjamin Signer, an 18-year-old high school student from Los Angeles, was supposed to travel from Poland to Israel, along with other participants in the march from his Jewish school. But the Israel leg was canceled after October 7, he said. “It’s disappointing but it makes this experience, which to me is about Jewish unity, even more significant,” he said of the march.

The unity he sees, Signer added, “is important because of the isolation we feel as Jews right now. It gives strength going forward in life.”

Most Popular
read more: