WARSAW, Poland – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday kicked off a two-day visit to Poland that is steeped in symbolism, focusing on the Jewish people's painful history there as well as the strong relations between Poland and the Jewish state today.
Netanyahu will meet with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Warsaw before heading south on Thursday to visit the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, where he will inaugurate a new pavilion meant to educate visitors about the Holocaust and the Nazi Germany's quest to exterminate the Jewish people.
With Tusk, Netanyahu will discuss security in Israel's neighborhood, including the stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, the conflict in Syria and Iran's nuclear program, as well as bilateral issues such as Poland's possible purchase of Israeli armaments. They are to meet with reporters later Wednesday, following meetings between some of their Cabinets' ministers.
Thursday's venue, Auschwitz — preserved as a memorial — remains the most vivid symbol of the cruelty of the Nazi Germany's genocide of World War II, which killed 6 million Jews. The world marks its International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, to coincide with the date of Auschwitz's liberation in 1945.
Thousands of young Jews walk with elderly Holocaust survivors in the annual March of the Living at the site, which has become a sort of pilgrimage for those seeking to commemorate the victims.
But oddly, the official Jewish narrative of the Holocaust there has been incomplete. The initial exhibition was erected under communist rule in the 1960s, alongside several national exhibitions in the former prisoner blocks. Over time it became neglected and outdated and most visitors ignored it. Following the visit of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Auschwitz in 2005, Israel decided to revamp the exhibit so it could serve as a focal point for future visitors.
The new exhibit in Block 27 will, for the first time, present Auschwitz in the larger context of the Nazis' systematic attempt to exterminate Europe's Jews.
The exhibit features a 360-degree montage of the vibrant prewar Jewish life, recreated drawings of some of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust, recorded survivor testimonies and massive volumes of books listing the names of some 4.2 million Jewish victims that Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, has painstakingly managed to recover.
The exhibition was curated by Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, and its International Advisory Committee was headed by noted author, survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. It aims to provide the backdrop of the Holocaust, the Nazi ideology for murder that followed and the physical and spiritual struggle of its victims.
"The new exhibition is thus a truly unique expression of the primary dimensions of the Holocaust, placing the human being at its very center," said Shalev. "Chapter by chapter it conveys the central themes of the Holocaust, which are not specifically historical, but rather present a profound ethical-cultural dimension of Holocaust remembrance."
While the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem provides an in depth chronological presentation of the Holocaust, the Auschwitz museum is more "theme-based", Shalev said, and aims to provide a focused experience to fit into a 30-minute visit.
"This is one of the biggest challenges ever for Yad Vashem," he said. "If someone emerges from it with a memory or two that causes them to think about how this happened we have done our job."
More than a million Jews died in Auschwitz and the adjacent Birkenau death camp in gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the most notorious of a system of death camps that Nazi Germany built and operated in Poland. The Germans carried out the Holocaust to a large extent in occupied Poland, because it had Europe's largest Jewish population and it was at the heart of a railway network that allowed the Nazis to easily transport Jews there from elsewhere in Europe.
In recent years, though, Poland has become one of the friendliest states to Israel.
Many Israeli leaders are children of Holocaust survivors and Israel has the world's largest population of survivors. Israel's own Holocaust remembrance day is in the spring, and coincides with the beginning of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Ganz, for instance, has a picture of Auschwitz in his office as a reminder of what he is fighting for.
Netanyahu also has an emotional connection to the Holocaust, although he has faced criticism for citing it frequently in the context of current events, notably regarding the potential nuclear threat from Iran. For years, Netanyahu has used his annual address on Israel's Holocaust remembrance day to caution about the danger of a nuclear Iran and vowing that "never again" will the Jews be powerless to defend themselves.
"Shoah warnings have taken over the political and military discourse," Haaretz editor Aluf Benn wrote last week. "The stronger Israel becomes diplomatically, militarily and economically, the more fearful its leaders and military commanders have become, and the process reached its peak in Netanyahu's time."
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