Half of Knesset in Poland for Holocaust memorial

Group of some 60 MKs is the largest-ever delegation to visit the Auschwitz death camp as part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Delegates at the entrance to Aushwitz, January 27, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)
Delegates at the entrance to Aushwitz, January 27, 2014. (photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO)

The largest ever delegation of Israeli lawmakers to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Polish site Monday.

Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Immigration and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz joined some 60 Knesset members, 24 Holocaust survivors and their families, as well as 250 prominent public figures, including State Comptroller Yosef Shapira, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev on the trip to Poland, where they took part in several memorial ceremonies.

The group was led by opposition head Isaac Herzog (Labor) and coalition head Yariv Levin (Likud-Yisrael Beytenu). Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who was supposed to head the delegation, was unable to travel due to the death of his wife on Friday.

”Seven decades after millions of our people were cruelly murdered by the Nazi machine of destruction, it is my privilege to head the largest ever delegation of the Knesset, the parliament of the independent Jewish state, to the killing valley of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” Levin said.

The Israeli delegation departed on two planes and landed at the military airport in Krakow Monday morning before heading to the Auschwitz concentration camp for a tour of the prisoner blocks and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, a Knesset statement said.

Later, the delegation was marching to the Birkenau death camp, for a memorial ceremony held on behalf of the Polish government.

”We are traveling from Jerusalem to the Valley of Tears; to the site of the greatest disaster and pain of our time,” Herzog said in a statement ahead of the visit. “There are no words to describe the intensity of our feelings as those who represent the atmosphere and opinions in our democracy. We are traveling (to Poland) in order to remember, remind, learn and teach a lesson; to light a memorial candle and say a small prayer – the Yizkor prayer.”

The Israeli delegation is joined by about 1,000 people, including Polish parliamentarians, the Knesset said.

While in the country, Knesset members will hold an inter-parliamentary gathering with officials from Poland, the US and elsewhere.

The visit comes a day after the release of a government report that found an overall deterioration in the security of Jews around the world and increasing concerns over anti-Semitism.

Citing a September poll by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the report noted that almost a quarter of European Jews avoid visiting places and wearing symbols that identify them as Jews for fear of anti-Semitism, and that nearly three-fourths of the Jews polled – 91 percent in Hungary – feel anti-Semitism has increased in the past five years.

That poll also revealed that nearly a quarter of European Jews don’t visit Jewish institutions or attend Jewish functions for fear of being attacked en route, one-third fear falling victim to anti-Semitic attacks, and slightly less than a third are considering emigration.

In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly set the International Holocaust Remembrance Day as January 27, the day in 1945 on which Soviet troops liberated the camp.

The visit is being conducted in collaboration with the Polish Jewish philanthropist Sigmund Rolat, 83, who lives in the United States, and From the Depths, a group that works to commemorate the Holocaust.

While the Israeli lawmakers’ travel is being funded by the Knesset at a cost of NIS 400,000 ($115,000), the bill for the ceremony and other expenses in Poland is being footed by the Auschwitz Museum, the Polish government and the country’s parliament.

According to The New York Post, Jewish philanthropist Stewart Rahr also contributed $600,000 toward the trip.

“This event will be the most uplifting and emotional remembrance ceremony in Jewish history, a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Rahr was quoted as saying.

Rahr, a self-made billionaire with a reputation for eccentric antics who describes himself as the “king of fun,” reportedly also arranged for Italian singing star Andrea Bocelli to give a performance at the event.

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