In freezing temperatures of minus 14 degrees Celsius and under heavy guard, 54 Knesset members assembled at the gates of Auschwitz yesterday to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
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The MKs were accompanied by some 250 other public figures, including 24 Holocaust survivors, State Comptroller Yosef Shapiro, Supreme Court Judge Elyakim Rubenstein, Chief Rabbi David Lau and Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev.
“We are standing at the gates of hell on earth,” said coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud), who co-chaired the delegation with opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor). It was the largest Knesset delegation ever to visit Poland. “This visit symbolizes Israel’s absolute commitment to defend the entire Jewish people,” Levin said.
MK Shuli Moalem (Habayit Hayehudi), who has guided groups to Auschwitz in the past, told her colleagues – many of whom had never been there before – about the site. After touring the camp and the museum, they proceeded to the nearby Birkenau camp, where they held a memorial ceremony for the Holocaust’s victims.
In an emotional speech, Herzog imagined life in the death camp. “I closed my eyes and for a moment I marched with you, fathers and sons, daughters and mothers,” he said. “Like you, I too didn’t know where I was heading. On the horizon, black smoke arose; screams were heard from all sides. Yiddish, German and Polish mingled. Some searched for their families, others for a bit of bread or water. I saw beautiful children, children who had known war and terror, pressed to their mothers’ bosoms and moving with the human river. With you, I was put into lines, trying to look as healthy as possible.”
Then, turning to the present, he added, “People often preach to us scornfully, and sometimes self-righteously, that we’d do better to get over the ‘Auschwitz syndrome.’ How much I would give to get over the ‘Auschwitz syndrome’ and turn back the clock! But Auschwitz is here. Auschwitz happened. Auschwitz is possible. It will forever be a black hole that threatens to swallow up human and Jewish history.”
Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) said the mourner’s kaddish prayer, wrapped in a prayer shawl that survived the Holocaust. Its owner, survivor Shlomo Yom Tov Haupt, hid it repeatedly to save it. Haupt’s son, Eliezer, asked Ariel to use it to say kaddish at Auschwitz-Birkenau, explaining that he had lost many other relatives there.
MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) said that on this, his first visit to Poland, he felt “terrible anger. Deep sorrow. Helplessness at the sight of atrocities impossible to grasp. But above all, I feel enormous pride that I have the privilege of belonging to the Jewish people, which mustered supreme strength to extricate itself from the flames of destruction and restore its sovereignty in its ancient homeland.”
Former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said the State of Israel is the Jewish people’s homeland, not compensation for the Holocaust. But he added, “The Holocaust is a reminder to the world, and the Jews themselves, that without a state, the Jews cannot survive as a people.”
The schedule for the one-day visit was full. They will tour the death camp, visiting the various exhibits, the Wall of Death and the museum in Hut 27. At the end of the tour, they set out on a march to Birkenau, where the memorial ceremony will be held under the auspices of the Polish government. About 1,000 people participated in the ceremony, including members of the Polish parliament. Representatives of the Polish government, the Russian government and Holocaust survivors addressed the crowd.
After the ceremony, the participants marchrf to the Birkenau monument for Kaddish and the recitation of the El Moleh Rahamim funeral prayer. Toward evening, Israeli and Polish parliamentarians will meet together in Krakow.