BERLIN - The event on Thursday afternoon at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland was extraordinary and unprecedented in the history of that place. Its existence had been kept under wraps and no official invitation was sent out. The organizers were uneasy about talking about it and forbade participants from talking to the media. However, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was supposed to be the guest of honor and keynote speaker at the event, gave away the secret.
Auschwitz supplied the answer to the question where Olmert was while an investigation connected with him was under way in Israel (the Holyland affair), and in doing so publicized the ceremony's existence. On Wednesday afternoon, a day before the ceremony, it transpired that Olmert had canceled his participation. The official reason: He was returning to Israel because of the investigation.
What was the secret and why did the organizers, headed by Keren Hayesod - United Israel Appeal, decide to keep the event quiet? It turns out that the monument - an authentic freight car that was used to transport Jews to the death camps - was supposed to commemorate the members of a private family, in return for a tidy sum. This type of commemoration is contrary to the clear policy of the memorial site, which is devoted to perpetuating the suffering and memory of all the camp's inmates and not only those whose relatives who can afford a private memorial.
The donor is Frank Lowy, an Australian tycoon and a friend of Olmert. That is why the former prime minister was invited to the ceremony. Lowy's name was mentioned prominently in the Bank Leumi affair, in which Olmert was suspected of trying to tilt a tender in his friend's favor. The case was closed for lack of evidence.
Lowy's father, Hugo, was one of the 1,600,000 people murdered at the camp. Lowy paid for the memorial in his name in the form of a freight car that was used for transporting Jews to Birkenau. In addition, he committed himself to donating something to the Auschwitz site. The sign that was placed at the new memorial reads: "The train car was donated and restored by the sons of Hugo Lowy, who was put to death here in May 1944."
Lowy has every right to ask to memorialize his father who was killed in the Holocaust, in any way he sees fit. However for fear of public criticism, or other reasons he does not wish to divulge, Lowy instructed Keren Hayesod - UIA head Greg Masel to keep a low profile over the matter. Lowy was not available for comment before publication.
The worldwide search for a train car that would serve as a semi-private memorial was conducted by Keren Hayesod - UIA, the World Zionist Organization's central fundraising body for Israel. The declared aim of the fund, according to its official Web site, is to promote the national interests of the State of Israel, including strengthening its periphery, encouraging aliya and absorption, and furthering Jewish-Zionist education. Keren Hayesod - UIA received 100,000 euros from Lowy for the mission and the money was used to pay the teams who were enlisted in Poland and Germany.
A spokesperson for the fund responded, "We are proud to take part in this historic memorial project in memory of the Jews of Hungary who were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau." Asked why the ceremony had been kept secret, the spokesperson said: "Keren Hayesod - UIA's task in this respect was merely logistical and the ceremony was a ceremony of the Auschwitz Museum."
The Auschwitz Museum's spokesperson's office said: "The questions should be addressed to the organizers of the event. We are merely the hosts."
In June 2009, Limor left for Germany on behalf of Keren Hayesod - UIA. After a thorough investigation, he reached the village of Wessum, close to the Dutch border. There, in an open field with an old railway line, stood an old train car that belonged to a young German doctor by the name of Ronald Hauser. Hauser had bought the freight car from the British army some 20 years earlier, and when he heard that the Auschwitz memorial site was looking for a car of this kind, he agreed to present it as a donation - even though it is apparently worth some 50,000 euros today.
On the night of September 15 the car was loaded onto a heavy truck and driven to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The following day, it was placed on the old railway tracks from where it was taken to the ramp at Birkenau.
Thursday's ceremony was held at that ramp (the unloading platform to which the camp inmates were brought), and Kaddish was recited there for Lowy's father. The organizers did not think of inviting Hauser, who donated the freight car, to the ceremony. Nor did they invite the two German artists who had restored the car, Ulrich Feldhaus and Martin Kaufmann. An investigation by Haaretz revealed that they were not invited because the ceremony was considered "a family event" and the Lowy family decided whom to invite.
Limor decided to boycott the ceremony since he understood that what had begun as a memorial project had turned into a private affair that was closed to the public. "I went to investigate and locate the authentic freight car out of the feeling that this was a public mission, and the recognition of the importance of exhibits that would confirm the story of the Holocaust of the Jewish people," he said. "I accepted the mission from Keren Hayesod - UIA before I knew details of how it was funded behind the scenes."
Until a few years ago, the memorial site had refused to swerve from its policy of forbidding entry to the camp area of any item that was not found there on the day of Auschwitz's liberation in January 1945. The reason was the fear that authenticity could be compromised and Holocaust-deniers would say that an exhibit had not been there originally.
After a struggle, the management agreed to allow the freight car to be brought there. The site's director, Dr. Piotr Cywinski, an historian, wrote at the time in the museum's internal bulletin: "Today, when we have gone a long way from the days of the Second World War, the youth have difficulty in imagining the hell of the transports, which sometimes took many long days in a crowded freight car. The possibility of exhibiting a car like this at the ramp of Birkenau, at the original memorial site, is extremely important from the educational point of view."
The site management did not like the idea of perpetuating the memory of one person. They agreed to deviate from the strict rules that have been in force there for so many years, on condition that the personal memorial would be accompanied by a more general sign in memory of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews who were brought to the camp in the transports of the spring and summer of 1944, and murdered there in gas chambers. This condition was fulfilled.
The management of the Auschwitz memorial site said in response: "The car is a monument that is dedicated to all the victims of the transports from Hungary. Sometimes we add a small sign with information about the people or the organizations that contributed various kinds of memorialization."
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