Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, accompanied by 20 survivors of the Holocaust and their grandchildren, joined thousands of people today in an emotional memorial for the victims of the Nazis at the biggest World War II death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Some 18,000 people – a number chosen to symbolise the Hebrew word for life, “Chai” – participated in this year’s March of the Living on a cold, grey day. It was the largest group to attend the memorial since it began in 1988.
“Remember the victims and remember the murders. Remember how millions of Jews were led to their deaths and the world remained silent,” Sharon said in a speech directed to the many teenagers and young adults in the crowd.
“The world stood aside then in silence. Remember. You are free Jewish youth,” he said.
The two-mile march from Auschwitz to Birkenau – the largest camp complex built by the German occupiers, where about 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were killed during World War II – is an annual memorial for all six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.
The march is also a commemoration of the death marches that took place when the Germans began emptying camps and forcing the inmates to walk hundreds of miles in freezing weather and with little food. Thousands of people died in the marches.
Sharon last visited Auschwitz 16 years ago. He said this trip was different because he was coming as prime minister.
“I feel the significance, I think what we need to do, with all the desire to advance in the peace process, we always have to be on guard and to rely only on ourselves,” he told reporters on the flight from Israel. “Jews can only rely on themselves.”
Sharon also touched on Israeli politics, saying that opponents to his Gaza withdrawal plan who use Holocaust images as part of their resistance are making a “grave mistake”.
Some opponents have compared the planned evacuations of thousands of Jewish settlers from their homes to Nazi deportations.
Upon arrival today at Birkenau, which like Auschwitz is preserved as a museum, the camp survivors who accompanied Sharon surveyed the dingy barracks, then slogged slowly through thick mud and wet grass with their grandchildren, most of whom wore crisp Israeli army uniforms.
Yitzhak Pery, who spent eight months in Auschwitz, said it was his first time back, but that the memories were still fresh.
“I was here 61 years ago and I am remembering everything,” said 75-year-old Pery, who was accompanied by his 20-year-old grandson Shahar, an Israeli paratrooper. ”I never wanted to come back. I came because of my grandson.”
Many participants, including Sharon, toured the barracks – the long, cramped structures where hundreds of people were forced to sleep on wooden slabs, stacked on top of one another. Pery later went into one of the barracks, and came out looking shaken.
The memorial ceremony was held at a nearby ramp, where the notorious Auschwitz camp doctor Joseph Mengele would survey people who arrived on trains and decide who would die immediately and who would be sent to labour camps.
Marchers passed under the notorious sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” – ”work liberates”.
Pery, who was 14 when he came to Auschwitz, told his captors that he was 19 - considered a good working age – in order to survive. But his mother and sister were sent to their deaths, their bodies disposed in the camp’s crematorium.
“There were guards who pointed at the smokestack and said: ’There is your mother,'" he said.
Above the ramp were enormous screens flashing black and white photos of the Holocaust; over loudspeakers, a steady stream of victims’ names, and the places they were born, were read in Hebrew.
When Sharon arrived for the ceremony, he received a warm ovation. Images of the camp’s gas chambers and crematoriums, emaciated prisoners, and a large banner of ”Never Again” appeared on the screen overhead. Sharon did not take part in the march itself.
The march coincided with the annual Holocaust memorial day in Israel. Sirens wailed throughout Israel for two minutes as the country observed a moment of silence. People stopped whatever they were doing and stood in silence, while traffic came to a standstill.
Today’s march caps a year of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, and coincides with the May 5, 1945, liberation of many of the survivors travelling with Sharon.