OSWIECIM, Poland — Thousands from across the globe marched Thursday between the former Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in honour of six million Jews killed in the Holocaust during World War II.
The mournful wail of traditional Jewish ram’s horn — the “shofar”, symbolising freedom — marked the start of the annual March of the Living, held this year for the 21st time since 1988 in this southern Polish town where Nazi Germany built its most notorious death camps.
Eight thousand marchers including Auschwitz survivors, Jewish youths from as far as Australia and two thousand young Poles passed through the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” (Work Will Set You Free) gate at the Auschwitz camp before proceeding along the three-kilometre (two-mile) route to Birkenau.
“This march for me is like a candle which I have to light for the victims,” Steven Higgs, a 22-year-old from Boston, Massachusetts, told AFP.
“It’s a small candle in a dark world but I believe, if more people will light a candle, the world could be better,” he said.
Maria Hermano, 43, travelled from Mexico with her family for the march, marking the annual Holocaust Memorial Day.
“No one from my family died in a concentration camp, but when you are here, you feel that every victim is a part of your family,” Hermano said.
Still bearing the camp number 3,241 tattooed on his forearm, Auschwitz survivor Willy Manela recalled its unspeakable horrors.
“Words cannot convey what happened here in Auschwitz. It’s unfathomable,” said the Polish Jew who made a life for himself in Ireland after the war.
“It’s my dream for the young people who are marching here not to forget history. They aren’t allowed! They cannot forget what hate of fellow human beings can lead to,” he added.
Israel’s former chief Rabbi Meir Lau as well as US and Canadian World War II veterans who liberated other Nazi death camps, notably Buchenwald, joined the march which wound from Auschwitz to the killing fields of Birkenau.
There, six large torches were lit to blaze in front of a memorial.
More than one million people, mostly European Jews, perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland from 1940 until it was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.
The site was one of six German death camps set up in occupied Poland, a country which was home to pre-war Europe’s largest Jewish community.
Many Auschwitz victims were sent to its notorious gas chambers immediately after being shipped in by train. Others were worked to death as slave labourers.
Among the camp’s other victims were tens of thousands of non-Jewish Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, and anti-Nazi resistance fighters from across Europe.