A record number of British participants took part in a huge march from Auschwitz to Birkenau this week, together with survivors from as far away as India.
The UK delegation, numbering some 260 people, joined thousands of others on the two-mile annual March of the Living, timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah.
In the spring sunshine, numerous flags from around the world fluttered across the infamous site.
Holocaust survivors linked arms defiantly beneath the haunting ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign, as the march set off in complete silence.
A shofar blew and 11,000 people began the slow walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, in memory of more than a million Jews who were murdered at the camp.
At Birkenau marchers placedboards between train tracks that brought Jews to their deaths, with messages of memorial, as candles with the word ‘yizcor’ – ‘remember’ positioned between the sleepers.
Beside Auschwitz’s destroyed crematoria, the message from Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose grandparents lost relatives in the Holocaust, was to make the most of survivors while they still can. “Talk to them, listen to them,” he said. “Remember their names and stories and faces. Sadly there are people attempting to rewrite history and alter the facts. Some deny the Holocaust happened; others try to scale it down. They continue where the Nazis failed: they make it as though millions of Jews with parents, friends, wishes and fears never existed.”
The British delegation was joined by seven Shoah survivors, as well as Jews from Holland and India, which thrilled March of the Living UK chair Scott Saunders.
Speaking to Jewish News, he said: “Two things really made this year’s delegation significant. We were joined by a small contingent from India and Holland, and we continue to grow. In its broadest sense we really touch the wider community.”
Joining the March this year were high-level delegates from 14 European countries, as well as Tel Aviv’s Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a survivor, as well as Shlomo Elisha, the son of the late Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel.
Unusually, this year’s march fell during a Shabbat weekend, which saw Holocaust survivors lead the Havdallah ceremony on Saturday night.
Richard Verber, senior vice-president at the Board of Deputies and head of external affairs at World Jewish Relief, was an educational leader on the UK delegation.
He said Shabbat is “down time in a very busy programme”, but added that “we have pretty much the whole gambit of Jewish denominations represented here. And yet everyone comes together for kiddish, dinner and havdallah, and it’s one of the most wonderful experiences”.
He says he found the march “an immensely rewarding experience,” adding: “It’s something I have been training for, for the last year. I’ve had my head in dozens of Holocaust books for the last few months.”