Nearly half the Israeli parliament was in Poland Monday to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 69th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. The MKs also conducted a joint session with counterparts from the Polish parliament.
At the camp, the Israeli delegation, which comprised 58 Israeli lawmakers, including several ministers, marched to the Birkenau death complex in formation, flanked by the Knesset guard and flying Israeli flags. Amid the snow-filled crematoria, they stopped to sing the Israeli national anthem in the freezing wind before breaking into smaller groups, many of them praying and remembering murdered relatives.
The visitors heard family stories from Poles like Piotr van der Coghen, whose father, a resistance fighter and medic, treated his Jewish fellow prisoners as an inmate at the Plaszow camp. Another Polish lawmaker, Ewa Wolak, spoke at the joint inter-parliamentary session in Krakow about a growing awareness among Polish priests and farmers of the need to demarcate the countless mass graves of Jewish Holocaust victims that dot the Polish countryside.
For Poles, the Knesset delegation arrived as Polish interest in the Holocaust and Jewish culture continues to grow, yielding a slew of recent books and movies and the opening of several Jewish museums and culture festivals. Foremost among the new museums is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose core exhibition is due to open later this year in Warsaw. The number of annual visitors to the Auschwitz museum has more than doubled since 1988, from 600,000 to 1.4 million.
There is a “growing recognition of how the Holocaust was an enormous loss also for Polish society,” said Shevah Weiss, a Poland-born Holocaust survivor and former Israeli ambassador to Warsaw. “Gradually, more and more Poles are discovering the enormity of that loss and are moved to attempt to recover some of it.”
Holocaust studies and interest in Polish Jewry’s heritage is growing in Israel, too. Israel’s education ministry last year announced a new program for teaching first graders about the Holocaust. Currently, the subject is not taught until junior high. Some 25,000 Israeli teenagers are sent to Poland each year, at a cost of $30 million annually.
At the ceremony, several MKs spoke about their personal connections to the Holocaust.
“Today I closed my eyes and saw you, Annette, my aunt who was 20 years old when you were captured while trying to escape from the Nazi occupation of France and transported here in a cattle car,” opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog (Labor) said.
“It is an unimaginable nightmare. Thousands were with you…. My eyes closed and for a moment I was marching there with you – fathers and sons, daughters and mothers,” he added.
“We stand at the gate of hell on earth,” MK Yariv Levin (Likud-Beiteinu) said. “The visit by a delegation of the parliament of an independent and strong Jewish state, together with survivors who were here, symbolizes Israel’s total commitment to the protection of the Jewish people.
“The Holocaust will never be forgotten and its lessons will continue to be studied for generations to come.”
MK and deputy defense minister Danny Danon (Likud) later described his thoughts during the commemoration: “I see members of Knesset from all parties. I see our government leaders. I see staunch Christian friends and allies from the United States and Europe. But I also see killing fields and crematoria filled with millions of the murdered. I cannot begin to image their horror or their sense of abandonment….