Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will take part in a commemorative march for Holocaust victims in Poland on Thursday, a trip his aides say will symbolize steadfastness in the face of rising anti-Semitism.
He will join Polish leaders and an estimated 20,000 people from around the world in the annual “March of the Living” between the former Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, honoring 6 million Jews killed by the Nazi genocide during World War II.
The ceremonial walk along the 1.9-mile track through the German Nazi-built complex, expected to be the largest ever, coincides with the 60th anniversary of the camps’ liberation.
“Tomorrow I am traveling to Poland to participate in the March of the Living,” Sharon said in a speech opening Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Jewish state, adding that he will be accompanied by Holocaust survivors and their Israeli offspring.
“This is perhaps the most significant expression of the difference between those days when Jews were led on death marches, and today, when we walk with pride,” he said.
Rise in anti-Semitic incidents
Sharon adviser Raanan Gissin said the march would be especially significant “because it is 60 years since the liberation of the camps and comes at a time of rising anti-Semitism when some people are questioning the very response to the Holocaust — the establishment of a Jewish state”.
A Tel Aviv University report released Wednesday found anti-Semitic incidents had increased by 68 percent in Britain and almost 40 percent in France last year.
Calling 2004 “the most violent year in the last 15 years,” the researchers said there had been a 39 percent increase in attacks against Jews worldwide compared with 2003.
Many Jews have already arrived in Poland, with 7,000 due to attend a concert on Wednesday evening in the recently revived Jewish quarter of Krakow, 43 miles from the Auschwitz camp.
Another 5,000 are expected to take part in a ceremony near the Warsaw Ghetto memorial on Wednesday as part of a tour taking in Polish-Jewish sights which will later travel to Israel.
Sharon will be commemorating the Holocaust with Polish leaders on Israel’s official memorial day, highlighting a warming of relations the two countries have enjoyed since the fall of communism in Poland 15 years ago.
Poland seeks shift in focus
Israel has agreed to iron out one area of tension with Poland over annual trips by thousands of Israeli students to former concentration camps and Holocaust memorials there.
Polish officials have urged Israel to broaden the itinerary of the visits to include meetings with Polish teenagers and classes about the thriving Jewish community that lived in Poland for centuries before the Holocaust.
“The Polish criticism is that the students’ entire visits are focused on concentration camps ... which gives an impression that the ones who committed the Holocaust were Poles not Nazis,” said an Israeli education ministry official.
Israel and Poland plan a joint committee to arrange visits by Israeli youths, and Israel says it will broaden its school curriculum to include lessons on Poland’s rich Jewish past.
Around 3 million of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. About 4 million European Jews in total were killed in the six death camps on occupied Polish soil.