IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz on Monday led the March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and lit a torch in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Gantz, who walked into the death camp alongside his Polish counterpart, vowed that Israel’s army would stand ready to protect the Jewish people from future danger and harm.
Gantz was joined by Tel Aviv’s Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, himself a child survivor of the camp, and some 10,000 other participants, many of them young people, on the three-kilometer walk Monday afternoon.
“Each and every one of you — members of our nation and its friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike — is the living proof of the victory of light; victory of morality; the triumph of Israel; that from the destruction of the Holocaust we grew stronger as a nation and as a people,” Gantz said in a speech.
He also invoked the heroism of ordinary individuals, and said their actions contrasted the horrors of the Holocaust.
“This route of heroism began with the flight of a child who stole a loaf of bread for his family in the ghetto dying of hunger; with the mother who shielded her son with her body, despite the bullets of the murderers,” he said.
“It continues with the valiant attacks of the partisans, the fighters in the ghettos, camps, and the Jewish Brigade that stood up against the Nazis and their accomplices, armed with simple weapons and immense strength of spirit. This is the march of the Holocaust survivors who lived to see the day of their liberation; a march that has crossed seas through the illegal boats that carried them to the Land of Israel.”
Gantz called Israel the symbol of the Jewish people’s survival, and vowed to be vigilant to protect it.
“Never again shall a calamity such as this transpire in our world. There shall never be a second Holocaust. We will not forget, nor will we allow it to be forgotten. And we will surely never, ever again stand unready to defend ourselves,” he said.
“…It is important to remember that the dove of peace has accompanied us through our journey since the covenant of Abraham. But in light of the Holocaust and the thousands of years of struggle for Jewish survival, we know better than to make light of the existential threats against Israel.
“There is no weapon or evil intention which can stand against the army of the Jewish people,” he added.
The stated aim of the March of the Living is to impart the lessons of the Holocaust and celebrate the history of Jewish survival. The journey starts in Poland and continues in Israel, where participants honor Israel’s fallen soldiers on Yom Hazikaron — Remembrance Day — and celebrate Israel’s Independence on Yom Ha’atzma’ut.
The annual program brings tens of thousands of high school students from around the world for a week of intensive education and touring in Poland and Israel, to study the history of the Holocaust and examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hate. To date, over 180,000 students have participated.
After his speech, Gantz and other notable figures, including survivors and one of the prosecutors at the Jerusalem trial of Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann, lit six torches to memorialize the six million Jews, minorities, people with disabilities, and other innocents whose lives were taken by the Nazis. They also honored the Allied forces and resistance soldiers who fought for freedom.
Earlier, participants watched a recorded message from President Shimon Peres, who said Israel would not forget the pain of the Holocaust.
“It is not a matter of remembering or forgetting, their blood flows in our blood, boiling till this day,” Peres said. “We will not be calmed. The distance is not that big, it happened 74 years ago, it is part of our biography, not part of our history.”
Peres said that the Jewish population of the world has not recovered from the Holocaust, and its numbers are still less than they were on the eve of World War II.
“The pain, the wound, the lacking is still there,” he said. “They live inside us. We live from what happened to them.”
Gantz arrived in Poland on Sunday, and declared that the state of Israel will ensure the horrors of Auschwitz never happen again.
Gantz, whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, was accompanied by a delegation of Israel Defense Forces officers and bereaved families of soldiers.
This year marked the first time that an IDF chief of general staff has led the march.
Peres told the participants that they would be carrying the entire Jewish people with them as they made the three-kilometer walk.
“With your strides will go the whole people,” Peres said. “We lowered our heads for their memory; raise your heads for the State of Israel. Go in peace and return in peace. We will continue to remember the pain and continue to build a state that has not lost hope to heal the entire world.
“There are marches that are measured in steps taken and marches that are measured in length of time,” Peres continued. “You are setting off on a march unlike any other, a march that goes from the depths of despair to the most greatest heights.”