Polish President Andrzej Duda and his Israeli counterpart, Reuven Rivlin, joined thousands of Jewish youths from around the world as well as Holocaust survivors to take part in the annual March of the Living, a silent 3-kilometer (2-mile) walk from the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp to that of the Birkenau extermination camp.
“Our common presence here shows the world: never again anti-Semitism, never again genocide, never again Holocaust,” Duda said during a joint press conference with Rivlin.
In his remarks, Rivlin noted how Poland had for centuries been a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in other parts of Europe and Russia — indeed, some historians estimate that three-quarters of the world’s Jewish population lived in Poland during the Renaissance.
“This country, Poland, was the cradle of Jewish history, but it also became the largest cemetery in the world for Jews,” Rivlin said
Three million Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust, nearly half of the Jewish people killed in the genocide.
New law strains Polish-Israeli ties
Established in 1988 by Israeli and North American philanthropists, the March of the Living is a two-week program for Jewish students that takes place immediately following Passover each year. The walk in Auschwitz is the culmination of the educational trip, and its name is meant to contrast with the death marches that the Nazis forced their captives to undergo as the Allied powers began to press in from both fronts.
Many marchers carried or wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag, while others carried their own national flags
This year’s march comes on the heels of a controversial new law in Poland that has somewhat strained ties with Israel. In February, Duda signed into a law an amendment to an old law, making it a crime to ascribe the crimes of the Third Reich to the Poles or the Polish government. This makes it illegal, for example, to describe Auschwitz as a “Polish death camp.”
Critics of the law, both in Israel and around the world, have noted that the law could not only hinder scholarship into the Holocaust, but could also erase the crimes of individual Poles who collaborated with the Nazis on a communal level.