Published April 25, 2006
Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister and Nobel peace laureate, led 8,000 people, mostly students, in the annual March of the Living, a two-mile trek from Auschwitz to the larger, neighboring camp at Birkenau, which housed most of the killing complex's gas chambers.
Some 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, but also Poles, Gypsies and others, died in the Nazi camp's gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor before Soviet troops liberated it on Jan. 27, 1945.
After a solemn reading of the names of children who died at the camp, a shofar, or ram's horn, sounded the march's start, and Peres led the column with its white and blue Israeli flags through the camp gate bearing the infamous inscription "Arbeit macht frei" — "Work makes you free" — on the path to Birkenau.
Among the marchers was Shmuel Blumenfeld, an Auschwitz survivor who made the trip from his home in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, Israel.
With a worn white cloth and Star of David bearing No. 108,006 pinned to his jacket, Blumenfeld recalled his trip to Birkenau in 1943 among some 2,000 prisoners from the Krakow ghetto.
"They dumped us at Birkenau, and we thought it was a factory, we had no idea it was a death camp," he said. Blumenfeld, who was 16 at the time, carried dead bodies for a month before being sent to work in a nearby coal mine.
"I was with Polish and German miners, and some of them helped me," he said. "I survived by pure luck, but also thanks to the help of civilians who sometimes gave me some food."
After the war, he married and moved to Israel. He joined the army and later worked as a prison guard, keeping watch over Nazi Germany's Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann before his execution in 1962.
"There are still people in the world who deny that there ever was the Holocaust, so it is my duty to come here and tell the young people what really happened, what I saw with my own eyes, what I went through," Blumenfeld said. "We don't want this to happen to anyone ever again."
Israel's Education Ministry initiated the marches in 1988 to be held every other year, but since 1996 it has been held every year, coinciding with Israel's Holocaust remembrance day.
Pre-World War II Poland had a Jewish population of 3.5 million, most of whom were killed in the Holocaust. Today, about 20,000 Jews live in Poland.