April 17, 2007

Thousands Mourn Holocaust Victims

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OSWIECIM, Poland — The Jewish prayer for the dead echoed across the wooden barracks and barbed wire fences of the former Auschwitz death camp on Monday, as thousands gathered to mourn the victims of the Holocaust.

In Israel, a two-minute siren sounded at 10 a.m., bringing pedestrians to a halt on busy streets and causing cars to pull over on highways as the country paused to pay respects to the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

Israeli leaders gathered with Holocaust survivors for the annual wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem, the country’s Holocaust memorial and museum. The events were part of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was observed from sundown Sunday to Monday.

About 8,000 people from across the world — including aging Holocaust survivors and teenagers — took part in Poland’s annual March of the Living, a two-mile trek from Auschwitz to the sprawling death camp of Birkenau, site of the main gas chambers.

At least 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, but also Poles, Gypsies and others, died in the Nazi complex’s gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor before Soviet troops liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945.

The marchers, many draped in blue-and-white Israeli flags, walked along railroad tracks that brought Jews from across Europe to their deaths, placing flowers or small wooden slabs bearing messages of mourning between the rails. One read ”Never again, the world needs peace,” while another bore the message ”We have survived.”

”We are all very proud to walk with our flags,” said Zohar Cohen, a 16-year-old member of a group of young Israelis waving a large Israeli flag. ”Especially in this place in Poland, where the Germans tried to exterminate all Jews.”

A shofar, or ram’s horn, sounded at the start of the march through Auschwitz’s wrought-iron gates, which read ”Arbeit Macht Frei,” or ”Work Sets You Free.” The march ended in a ceremony with the Kaddish, or Jewish prayer for the dead, at the monument to the camp’s victims among the red-brick ruins of Birkenau’s crematoriums.

Hank Brodt, an 82-year-old who survived five different Nazi concentration camps, attended the march for the second consecutive year to pass on his experiences to the younger generation.

”I’m trying to teach them what happened and educate them,” said Brodt, a retired carpenter who lives in Greensboro, N.C. ”They’re the ones who have to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and prevent it from happening again.”

All day in Israel, television stations broadcast documentaries and movies, and radio stations played somber music and interviews with survivors. Schools held memorial services, entertainment venues were shut down and the Israeli flag was flown at half staff.

Israelis also gathered at to the Holocaust museum’s Hall of Remembrance to recite the names of victims.

Michal Beer, a 78-year-old survivor of the Terezin concentration camp, slowly read the names of dozens of relatives killed in the Nazi death camps, pausing at times as she held back tears.

She is taking part in an effort by the museum to document victims’ memories before they die. ”Soon, I will no longer be around. We really are the last ones,” she said.

Roughly half of the world’s Holocaust survivors live in Israel, or about 250,000 people. About 2,000 survivors die each month in Israel, a rate of 65 a day, according to experts cited in Israeli newspapers Monday.

Many survivors also suffer from physical and emotional problems dating back to the war, and the government estimates about a third live in poverty. Hundreds of survivors gathered at parliament Monday to protest the state’s neglect of their needs.

”We must never accept a reality in which even one of the Holocaust survivors in Israel is living without dignity,” Israel’s acting president, Dalia Itzik, said in a speech Sunday.

Responding to the public outcry, the government has established a commission to try to come up with solutions to the problem.

Yad Vashem has led a vigorous campaign in recent years to complete its database of names of Holocaust victims, encouraging survivors to fill out pages of testimony for those killed before their names and stories are lost forever.

So far, the museum has managed to gather 3.1 million names. In the vast Hall of Names, half the allotted folders of the 6 million dead remain empty.

Beer hopes her contribution will help. The grandmother of six from Tel Aviv has submitted more than 450 pages of testimony, documenting the lives of her friends and relatives who were killed, including her father and almost all the Jews in her hometown of Prostejov, Czech Republic.

”I feel as if a great weight has been lifted from my heart,” she said. ”No one would have remembered them. If I hadn’t done this, who would have?”

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Associated Press Writer Aron Heller has contributed to this report from Jerusalem.