Some 12,000 marchers from 40 countries — from Holocaust survivors to teenagers to senior Israeli officials — were participating in the March of the Living on Thursday in Poland.
President Reuven Rivlin led the group along the two miles from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the Birkenau extermination camp, which housed Nazi gas chambers and crematoria during World War II.
The Israeli delegation included IDF Chief of Staff Lt Gen Gadi Eisenkot, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman, and Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich
Eisenkot, who led the military’s delegation of “Witnesses in Uniform,” comprising some 20 officers and three Holocaust survivors, underlined the significance of the occasion during his address to the group upon landing in Warsaw.
“I, the head of the IDF General Staff and head of the IDF delegation to Poland in the 70th year of the State of Israel, say, ‘Never again!'” he said.
There had been speculation that Eisenkot would back out of the planned trip in light of the security situation on the northern border, in the wake of an airstrike on a Syrian airbase on Monday that was attributed to Israel.
Also addressing the delegation prior to the march, Alsheich spoke of the responsibilities that come with serving the country.
“Police officers ensure the moral existence of Israeli society, which is no less important than protecting the country’s borders, and sometimes even more important,” he said. “We are the opposite of the Nazi-uniformed men who committed and enabled this terrible crime in the history of mankind.”
Rivlin was accompanied on the march by Polish President Andrzej Duda, despite tensions between the two countries over Polish legislation that imposes fines or up to three years in jail on anyone who ascribes “responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish nation or state for crimes committed by the German Third Reich.”
Rivlin told Duda Thursday that while Poles helped rescue Jews during the Holocaust, they also took part in their extermination.
“There is no doubt that many Poles fought the Nazi regime, but we can’t deny the fact that Poland and Poles helped in the extermination,” Rivlin said during a joint press conference with Duda in Krakow.
“The country of Poland allowed the implementation of the horrific genocidal ideology of Hitler, and witnessed the wave of anti-Semitism sparked by the law you passed now,” the president added.
The president noted that Israel honors those Poles who gave their own lives to save Jews, but pointed out the widespread anti-Semitism that existed in Holocaust-era Poland and that many Poles also participated in the extermination.
“People murdered and then inherited [the property of the dead]. Here there was a foundation” of anti-Semitic feeling “that allowed the Nazis to do as they wished, not only in Poland but throughout Europe,” Rivlin said.
Also participating in Thursday’s march were a group of ambassadors to the United Nations, whose attendance was organized by the American Zionist Movement and Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon.
“As we witness an increase in anti-Semitism around the world, and dangerous attempts to rewrite history, now more than ever we must ensure that the memories of the survivors pass on to the next generation,” Danon said in a statement about his delegation. “By joining us on this meaningful march, UN ambassadors from around the world are speaking out against anti-Semitism and sending a message to all those who peddle in hatred.”
During World War II, the Nazis killed some 1.1 million people at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, mostly Jews, but also Russians, Roma, Poles and members of other nationalities.
The March of the Living began in 1988 as a biennial event, but was soon staged yearly. More than 260,000 people from 52 countries have participated in the commemoration.