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It is the largest cemetery the world has ever known. For the living, it remains the most potent symbol of the least comprehensible darkness of human behavior.

Just as it has defied understanding, the Auschwitz extermination camp in southern Poland, by its very existence, has consistently foiled efforts to forge consensus over honoring those buried there.

Auschwitz was the place where one thousand years of Polish Jewish history came to die. Anti-Semitism, rife in much of Poland for centuries before the Holocaust, has been difficult to uproot even after Nazi occupation troops killed nearly all of the more than three million Jews on its soil.

Accordingly, the debate between Poles and Jews over commemorations have traditionally been among the most emotionally charged and wrenching.

This week saw a fresh chapter in a boundlessly painful dispute. Three Israel Air Force pilots, all of them descendents of survivors of the World War II Holocaust, flew their F-15 fighter-bombers in the skies that had once been choked and blackened with human ash.

Ceremonial formations of three aircraft are traditional in memorial fly-pasts, signifying that the fourth member of the formation is missing.

As a token of solidarity, two Polish Air Force jets escorted the Israeli pilots.

In Israel, home to the largest single community of Holocaust survivors, some 300,000, the gesture was widely viewed as a statement of affirmation, a sign that the lesson of the fatally vulnerable powerlessness of Jews plagued by pogroms and annihilation in Poland had been learned by a Jewish nation determined and able to ensure its own defense.

For some Poles, however, the use of machines of war to commemorate victims of genocide was darkly troubling and wrongheaded.

"The National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau deplores the demonstration of Israeli military might in this place," a Polish museum erected at the site said in a statement issued on the evenof the flight.

"Flying the [F-15s] is a demonstration of military might which is an entirely inappropriate way to commemorate the victims," said museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt.

In a statement that rankled many in Israel for its tone of what was interpreted by some as condescension and a misinterpretation of the obvious, Mensfelt added: "It's a cemetery, a place of silence and concentration."

Hours before the flight, Air Force Brigadier-General Amir Eshel, commander of the formation, turned aside the criticism of the museum authorities.

Eshel said he could understand the sensitivities of Mensfelt and others. Nonetheless, he said, "the message that we are bringing is an entirely different one - it is a message of peace. In their view, we are coming in crafts of war. But these are crafts that deter war, that are meant to [safeguard] peace."

Eshel said the joint flight with Polish warplanes was a further symbol of reconciliation. "It is a sign of the deepening ties of friendship developing between the two nations.

"For me," Eshel concluded, "both personally and on a national level, this represents the closing of a circle. We, who rose out of the ash of the victims. A country that rose from the ash of the victims.

"We are returning to these place, the most tangible symbol of extermination, with a very clear message. It is not a statement for the Polish people. It is a statement to ourselves, and to the world."