Saturday, May 07, 2005

Sad steps back to death camps
Sad steps back to death camps

They walked with the ghosts of Auschwitz yesterday and they remembered.

Led by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, 18,000 pilgrims marched 2 miles in the rain from the Nazis' biggest killing ground to the nearby Birkenau death camp.

Most were Israeli high school students. But marching with them were survivors like 82-year-old Bella Domanski, formerly of Brooklyn and a Polish Jew on whose arm the Nazis tattooed the number 24738.

"I was here 61 years ago, and I am remembering everything," said another survivor, 75-year-old Yitzhak Pery, who brought his grandson Shahar, 20, an Israeli paratrooper. "I never wanted to come back. I came because of my grandson."

With anti-Semitism again on the rise and survivors dying off, Sharon told the youngest marchers to "remember the victims and remember the murderers."

"Remember how millions of Jews were led to their deaths and the world remained silent," he said.

Young Israelis, some wrapped in their country's blue-and-white flag, passed through the camp gate with its sign "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "work sets you free."

Silently, they filed into the dingy barracks, where hundreds of prisoners were forced to sleep on wooden bunk beds. Silently, they surveyed piles of glasses and artificial limbs the guards stripped from the victims.

Many wept during the memorial ceremony at the ramp where the "Angel of Death," camp doctor Josef Mengele, decided whether a prisoner died fast in the gas chambers - or died slowly doing slave labor.

Over the loudspeakers, the names of the victims were intoned in Hebrew.

The majority of the 1.5 million people murdered at the Nazi camps in southern Poland were Jews. But thousands of Polish Catholics, Soviet POWs and Gypsies also were killed.

And for the first time, Israel honored Polish requests and instructed students making the pilgrimage that Germans - not Poles - were the main culprits in the Holocaust.

"German Nazis were the perpetrators, but a great deal of it occurred on Polish soil," said Noah Shalev, an education ministry official.

The March of the Living was inspired by the death marches that took place at the end of World War II. This year's procession was the biggest yet and came after world leaders commemorated the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation.

In Israel, sirens wailed and the country came to a standstill for two minutes of silence in memory of the 6 million Holocaust victims.

But the observances were marred by unprecedented ugliness. Right-wingers opposed to Sharon's plan to pull Jewish settlers out of the Gaza Strip painted swastikas and graffiti likening him to Hitler on the road leading to Yad Vashem, the nation's Holocaust museum.

originally published Friday, May 6th, 2005