HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MARCH
"I came here because I wanted to show that the Nazis didn't win, that Jewish people are still living all over the world," said 19-year-old Suzie from Maryland.
Suzie was one of more than 5,000 Jews from all over the world who marched down the "Road of Death" on April 16, from the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz to the gas chambers of Birkenau. "We came to honor the 6 million Jews who disappeared here," explained 60-year-old Joe Steinbergh from Toronto. "We know what happened here, but now we can tell our children what we saw."
The March of the Living began with Yakov Stroumza, an 80-year-old Greek Jew, playing Kol Nidre (All the Sins) on the violin. Fifty-two years ago he stood in the same place playing lively tunes to camp prisoners who were marched to their deaths. For two years Stroumza had been a member of the camp orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He alone survived, and today lives in Jerusalem.
The participants were mostly high-school students. Dressed in identical blue jackets, they marched along the route taken by the condemned more than 50 years ago. Israeli soldiers carried national flags at the head of the precision. Accompanying the organizers in the march were Polish Justice Minister Leszek Kubicki, Secretary of State in the President's Chancellery Marek Siwiec, and Foreign Ministry Commissioner for Contacts with the Jewish Diaspora Krzysztof Zliwiäski. Representing Israel were Environment Minister Yossi Sarid, Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and members of the Knesset.
The main ceremony took place at Birkenau, on the site of a crematorium. Representatives of Israeli and Polish authorities gave speeches, then participants sang Hatiikva and I Believe, just as those going to their death had. Each participant received a wooden tablet inscribed with the name of one victim. The tablets were then buried to symbolize a mass grave.
The police and town authorities kept a keen look out for potential trouble, and the occasional group of skinheads which arrived in Oswiecim, the town where Auschwitz-Birkenau is located, was immediately taken care of. Israeli secret service agents also watched over the safety of the marchers.
This year's March of the Living is the fifth biennial observance, the first having taken place in 1988. Organizers now plan to hold marches annually. However, these plans were hanging in the balance earlier in the year. "Five months ago we were wondering whether to have the march at all," said founder Avraham Hirsohn. He was referring to a controversial plan to build a supermarket in front of the camp gates. Hirsohn also recalled the skinhead demonstration which had been organized on camp grounds just two weeks before. "We came to protest against the Nazi revival," he said.
Organizers stressed the importance of the march for the young. "It is not a simple demonstration," said Shmuel Rosenman, a consultant at Israel's Ministry of Education. "It is an experience which every student can take to their class."
Several young marchers came to Poland a few days before the event to visit places which testify to centuries of Jewish presence in Poland. Kazimierz, the old Jewish district in Cracow, and the Monument to Ghetto Victims in Warsaw.
Two days after the march young Jews met Polish President Aleksander Kwaniewski in Warsaw, and Polish youth organizations also took part. At the request of his Jewish guests the president danced a few steps to Hava nagila, and Danuta Waniek, minister in the President's Chancellery, sang a Jewish hymn, with the help of Szymon Szurmiej, director of the Jewish Theater in Warsaw.
"The Israeli government is satisfied that Polish authorities are doing everything necessary to prevent further anti-Jewish demonstrations in Oswiecim," said Sarid after the meeting with Kwasniewski. Sarid also expressed satisfaction with the president's assurances that the process of returning the property of former Jewish communes in Poland to their rightful owners would be speeded up.
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