For survivors, Auschwitz ceremony `closes a circle'
The back seats of the plane carrying President Moshe Katsav to Auschwitz were designated for survivors and their families, mostly second generation.
Just before the plane began to land, with the snow-covered runway already visible through the window, an argument broke out in the back seats of the plane about the temperature on the ground.
The pilot said it was minus six. "That's impossible," replied one of the Holocaust survivors, "it's at least minus fifteen. And think how cold it was here in the winter when we stood outside for hours in our striped uniforms and wooden shoes, without socks and woolen coats like we have today."
The back seats of the plane carrying President Moshe Katsav to Auschwitz were designated for survivors and their families, mostly second generation. The delegation was headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau to attend the ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
The idea of holding the commemoration was born a year ago, when the secretary of Poland's national council on memorials, Andje Pshabuzhnik, suggested hosting a meeting of the liberators and survivors at the camp, 60 years later. Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski adopted the idea, which initially called only for inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli President Moshe Katsav. But then, French President Jacques Chirac heard about the plan and asked to take part, and soon, other statesmen from around the world wanted to join in as well.
Today, alongside the presidents of Russia, Israel and France will be German President Horst Koehler, the president of the Czech Republic, the British foreign minister, the prime minister of Italy, the queen of Holland, the president of Hungary, the prime minister of Greece, the American vice president and others. Altogether, 40 heads of state.
More than 10,000 guests and 1,600 journalists have come from around the world to Krakow, a city about 60 kilometers away from the site of the most infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz. Every hotel in the city is full.
"I'm closing a circle," said one of the survivors. "I've returned after 60 years. I haven't been able to sleep for two weeks."
Dan Arad came with his wife from Haifa. He feels lucky. He was at Auschwitz-3. "Conditions were good there," he said. "Each person had a bed. We had money in the form of coupons. We could trade with the Polish prisoners. They used it for prostitutes and we got bread in exchange." Auschwitz-3 was the forced labor camp. That is where the fit and healthy were sent. Some, like Arad, survived. "I spent six weeks at Birkenau, until [Josef] Mengele came to our barracks and looked at me. I still looked pretty good and he sent me to Auschwitz-3. That's where I met Primo Levi. Only later did I find out who he was." Now Arad is 83, an Israel Defense Forces pensioner. He wrote a book called Surviving Auschwitz.
How does one survive Auschwitz?
"You lower a curtain. You don't see the people to your right and left who are falling, being murdered, killed, freezing to death. You don't see anything and don't feel anything. Those who could not do that, did not survive. Auschwitz was for solitary players."
Yesterday, there was a ceremony at the Krakow military cemetery, where Polish, British and Russian soldiers are buried. There was also an Israeli military ceremony in honor of 13 soldiers from Palestine who fought in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, fell into German captivity and ended up buried in the British plot of Krakow's military cemetery, far from home.
Chief IDF Chaplain Rabbi Yisrael Weiss read psalms and chanted El Maleh Rahamim, the prayer for the dead. President Katsav laid a wreath, and later, in the freezing cold and the constantly falling snow, he placed tiny Israeli flags on the 13 graves. A Polish military band played Hatikva. But the meeting between Katsav and Putin was canceled. Katsav said that efforts were still being made to organize something today.