Israeli, Polish presidents join Holocaust remembrance march

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Nazi Germany killed some 1.1 million people in the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. (WTVD)

The Israeli and Polish presidents sought to calm bitter feelings that have flared between their nations as they joined thousands at a Holocaust remembrance event Thursday at the former Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Presidents Reuven Rivlin of Israel and Andrzej Duda of Poland lit candles, bowed their heads and pressed their hands on the Death Wall, a site at Auschwitz where inmates, chiefly Polish resistance fighters, were executed by Nazi German forces during World War II.

They then took their places at the head of a group of thousands at the March of the Living, a yearly remembrance event that takes place on Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day. Most of the participants were young Israelis or other young Jews from around the world commemorating the tragedy of their people, joined by a few Holocaust survivors.

The solemn march began by the main gate and watchtowers of Auschwitz and led three kilometers (two miles) away to Birkenau, where Jews from across Europe were transported by train to be murdered in gas chambers.

Duda said he and Rivlin wanted to give testimony to the destruction of the Jewish people and warn what anti-Semitism, xenophobia and racism can lead to.

"Our common presence here shows the world: never again anti-Semitism, never again genocide, never again Holocaust," Duda said during a joint news conference before the march.

Rivlin recalled how Jews had flourished for centuries in Poland before 3 million of them were killed during World War II.

"This country, Poland, was the cradle of Jewish history but it also became the largest cemetery in the world for Jews," Rivlin said in comments in Hebrew.

Rivlin also referred to the "deep disagreement" that his country has had with Poland over the country's passage earlier this year of a Holocaust speech law.

The law criminalizes blaming Poland for crimes that were committed by Nazi German forces during their wartime occupation of Poland. The Polish government insists the law aims to protect historical truth by preventing Poles from being blamed for German crimes.

Israel has strongly protested the law, fearing that its true intent is to repress discussion about those Poles who helped the Germans kill Jews.

The Jews of Europe and ethnic Poles were two of the groups who suffered the most under the Nazis, with Jews targeted for total elimination and Poles considered a slave race. Many Poles were killed, tortured or forced into slave labor during the German occupation.

Many bitter feelings remain between Jews and Poles. Rivlin told Duda during the news conference that his country insists that Poland "be responsible for the full study of the Holocaust."

Many Poles, meanwhile, feel their nation's anti-Semitism has been unfairly depicted and recall the efforts by the Polish underground forces and some Poles to save Jews. Many also bristle that their own tragedy is often forgotten.

Duda, whose wife has a Jewish father, insisted that the intention of the disputed law was never to "block testimony" about the Holocaust.

"Just the opposite. We want to defend historical truth," Duda said. "I as Polish president want to defend this truth with all my power, including those elements that are difficult for Poles."

Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, who was present at Auschwitz, described the two presidents as "two friends working hard to resolve a serious and difficult problem" and said he felt their joint participation in the march had moved the two sides closer to reconciliation.

Nazi Germany killed some 1.1 million people in the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. The victims were mostly Jews, but also included Poles, Roma and Soviet POWs.
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