IAF Pilots Perform Fly-over at Auschwitz Death Camp

Ignoring protests by the National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau and a heavy cloud cover, three Israel Air Force F-15 jets piloted by descendants of Holocaust survivors circled over the former Nazi death camp in what was designed as a tribute to the memories of Holocaust victims.

"It's a protest against the inhumanity of the Nazis on the Polish territory," said Israel's ambassador to Poland, Shevach Weiss. "It's a tribute to the ashes of those who were killed here."

During the fly-over, the blue Star of David painted on the planes was visible on the ground, where some 200 Israel Defense Forces soldiers stood at attention at the former Birkenau death camp, adjacent to Auschwitz.

In a short speech given from his aircraft and relayed to those on the ground, Brigadier-General Amir Eshel vowed to do everything possible to prevent anything similar to the Holocaust recurring.

He also bade a symbolic farewell to his grandmother who was murdered in Auschwitz.

The fly-over went ahead despite criticism by the Polish museum located at the site and a claim by a Polish aviation control spokeswoman that poor weather had led to the cancelation of the tribute.

"The National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau deplores the demonstration of Israeli military might in this place," the museum said in a statement issued Wednesday.

"It's a cemetery, a place of silence and concentration," museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt said by telephone.

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

A statement from the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw said that the three jets - piloted by descendants of Holocaust survivors - were to fly over the former death camp at noon. They were to have been accompanied by two Polish MiG-29 jets, Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Sharon Feingold said.

During the fly-over, organizers planned to read off the names of victims who arrived at Auschwitz exactly 60 years ago, on September 4, 1943. Pages of testimony on the victims are to be carried by the pilots in their planes, Feingold said.

Israel's ambassador to Poland, Shevach Weiss, insisted that the overflight was not a demonstration of Israeli air power.

"They will fly over the camp for about a second to honor the ashes of their fathers and grandfathers. This will be a very emotional moment for them. They will probably be crying in the planes. This is not a demonstration of military power. Our army simply wants to honor the victims," the envoy told Reuters.

Both the IDF and Foreign Ministry defended the fly-over plans, citing cooperation between Israel and Poland to remember the more than one million people who perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the vast majority of them Jews, from 1940 until its liberation on January 27, 1945. A total of six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

Some 200 IDF soldiers were also to take part in a ceremony at Birkenau, the former death camp adjacent to Auschwitz, according to Israeli officials.

"It's a joint Israeli-Polish initiative and for a noble cause," Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled said. "We share a tragic history, and obviously it's being done in full cooperation."

Organizers said the idea of the overflight was prompted purely by the coincidence of the planes being in Poland for the air show.

Mensfelt said that the museum had not been consulted about the fly-over. He added that the International Auschwitz Council, an advisory body to the museum headed by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, an Auschwitz survivor and former Polish foreign minister, also "does not support such a way to commemorate the victims."