Thousands of people from around the world, many draped in Israeli flags, paid homage to the victims of the Holocaust on Thursday with a somber march from the barracks of Auschwitz to nearby Birkenau.
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Organizers of the March of the Living, held annually on Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, said about 10,000 participated in the event in southern Poland, occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Among them were about 150 Holocaust survivors, Israel's justice minister, Knesset members and people from 42 countries who voiced a wide range of emotions: deep grief at the loss of 6 million Jews, joy at the continued existence of the Jewish people and hope that the many young people taking part means the world will continue to remember.
"My grandparents of blessed memory died in the Holocaust along with five of their seven children and I am here to say memorial prayers for them, out of respect and out of hope they are resting in peace," said Michael Berks, 77, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The marchers gathered under the infamous gate at Auschwitz bearing the sadist Nazi motto "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Will Set You Free). The chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Yisrael Meir Lau, an Auschwitz survivor from Poland, marched at the head of the group holding Torah scrolls.
The long line of people then proceeded, some in silence, some singing Hebrew songs, about three kilometers (two miles) to Birkenau, where most of the 1.1 million victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex were killed in gas chambers.
As they arrived at the gates of Birkenau, some bowed their heads or knelt down to pray at the railway tracks that brought victims to the extermination camp from across Europe. Some wept as they prayed alone, others as they gathered in small groups, hugging friends.
As a group from the United States approached the tracks, two survivors who had not met before, realizing they were both survivors, began chatting, exchanging information about their wartimes experiences.
The sight of the two elderly survivors caught the attention of those nearby, causing an interested group to surround the two, who at times struggled to hear and understand each other well. One of them, Salomon Birenbaum, wore a cap with stripes that recalled the prisoner garb at the camp. People wept as they watched, with some uttering "God bless you."
Then, the other survivor Anneliese Nossbaum, who was in a wheelchair, caught sight of the railroad tracks — her first sight of them since she was an inmate there.
"Why didn't they bomb those tracks? Why didn't the outside world help? The world failed us," she said.
"That's why there is Israel now," interjected a woman from the United States.
Several people lit little candles and placed them on the tracks but the flames were extinguished quickly by the wind and a sudden rain that fell as people made their ways to the crematoria, now sunken ruins in the earth.
People also left personal messages along the tracks. "Today I march for those who cannot. NEVER FORGET THE 6 MIL," read one.