Image: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Czarek Sokolowski  /  AP
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaks to thousands of Jewish youths from around the world during the 14th March of the Living.
updated 5/5/2005 1:13:35 PM ET 2005-05-05T17:13:35

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, addressing a Holocaust memorial gathering Thursday at the site of a Nazi concentration camp, said people should remember that the world stood silent while 6 million Jews were murdered.

“Remember the victims and remember the murderers, “ he said at a March of the Living ceremony at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp complex. “Remember how millions of Jews were led to their deaths and the world remained silent.”

Sharon, accompanied by 20 survivors of the Holocaust and their grandchildren, joined thousands of people in the annual memorial for the victims of the biggest World War II death camp.

Some 18,000 people — a number chosen to symbolize the Hebrew word for life, “Chai” — participated in this year’s memorial. It was the largest group to attend the annual ceremony since it began in 1988.

Sharon last visited Auschwitz 16 years ago. He said this trip was different because he was coming as prime minister.

“I feel the significance, I think what we need to do, with all the desire to advance in the peace process, we always have to be on guard and to rely only on ourselves,” he told reporters on the flight from Israel. “Jews can only rely on themselves.”

Sharon also touched on Israeli politics, saying that opponents to his Gaza withdrawal plan who use Holocaust images as part of their resistance are making a “grave mistake.” Some opponents have compared the planned evacuations of thousands of Jewish settlers from their homes to Nazi deportations.

March of the Living
The two-mile march from Auschwitz to Birkenau — where about 1.5 million people, most of them Jews, were killed during World War II — represents an annual memorial for all 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The March of the Living also commemorates the death marches that took place when the Germans began emptying camps and forcing the inmates to walk hundreds of miles in freezing weather with little food. Thousands died.

Upon their arrival Thursday at Birkenau — which, like Auschwitz, is preserved as a museum — camp survivors surveyed the dingy barracks, then slogged through thick mud and wet grass with their grandchildren, who wore crisp Israeli army uniforms.

Yitzhak Pery, who spent eight months in Auschwitz, said it was his first time back.

“I was here 61 years ago and I am remembering everything,” said 75-year-old Pery, who was accompanied by his 20-year-old grandson Shahar, an Israeli paratrooper. “I never wanted to come back. I came because of my grandson.”

Many of the marchers, holding blue-and-white Israeli flags, toured the barracks — the long cramped structures where hundreds of people were forced to sleep on wooden slabs, stacked on top of one another. Pery later went into one barrack and came out looking shaken.

Memorial service
A memorial ceremony was scheduled at a nearby ramp, where the notorious Auschwitz camp doctor Joseph Mengele surveyed people who arrived on trains and decided who would die immediately and who would be sent to labor camps.

Above the ramp were enormous screens flashing black and white photos of the Holocaust. Over loudspeakers, a steady stream of victims’ names, and the places they were born, were read in Hebrew.

Pery, who was 14 when he came to Auschwitz, told his captors that he was 19 — considered a good working age — in order to survive. But his mother and sister were sent to their deaths, their bodies disposed of in the camp’s crematorium.

“There were guards who pointed at the smokestack and said, ’There is your mother,”’ he said.

The march coincided with the annual Holocaust memorial day in Israel. At 10 a.m., sirens wailed throughout Israel for two minutes as the country observed a moment of silence. People stopped whatever they were doing and stood in silence, while traffic came to a standstill.

Thursday’s march is part of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the war and coincides with the May 5, 1945, liberation of the camps.

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