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Rivlin leads 'March of the Living' in Poland on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Participants of the annual "March of the Living" walk through the gate of Auschwitz in Poland on April 8, 2013
Janek Skarzynski (AFP/File)
Ahead of march, Rivlin addressed rift between Israel and Poland by controversial Holocaust law

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin led the annual "March of the Living" alongside Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda on Thursday, marking Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day by walking the three kilometers (two miles) from the Auschwitz concentration camp to the site of the gas chambers and crematoria at the Birkenau extermination camp.

Some 10,000 Jews of all ages, along with Poles and Holocaust survivors turned out to participate in memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust -- including the 1.5 million who perished at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

Along with Rivlin, other officials attending the march include Israel's ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief-of-staff Gadi Eisenkott, and the heads of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and Shin Bet security services.

“We came here today to send a clear message to the world against anti-Semitism and in support of teaching the memory of the Holocaust to future generations,” Danon said in a statement from the march.

“In a time of rising anti-Semitism and in the face of the dark regimes of our day, the international community must act aggressively and with determination to ensure that such things never happen again,” he said.

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However, this year's ceremony was overshadowed by a "deep disagreement" between Israel and Poland over a controversial new Polish law that was meant to protect Poland from false accusations of complicity in the Holocaust.

The law sets fines and prison terms for implying Warsaw's culpability for crimes committed on its soil during Nazi occupation or reference to Nazi death camps as Polish.

The legislation which came into effect last month has drawn sharp criticism from Israel, Ukraine and the United States.

Israel has expressed deep concern that the law could open the door to prosecuting Holocaust survivors for their testimony, should it concern the involvement of individual Poles for allegedly killing or giving up Jews to the Germans.

At the closing ceremony Rivlin reiterated those concerns regarding the new law, claiming Poland was distorting the image of its own history.

"The Nazi death machine would not have been able to achieve its terrible vision if it had not received help," he remarked. "If it had not found a fertile ground of hatred for Jews in which to take root."

"True, it was Germany that established the camps, but our people were not murdered only in the camps. The members of our nation were betrayed by the people among whom they lived. In France, in Holland, and in Belgium. They were murdered by Ukrainians, Lithuanians and yes, also by Poles."

"Despite the exceptional relationship between our two peoples, we demand Poland take responsibility for the comprehensive study of the Holocaust," Rivlin told reporters prior.

Duda assured Rivlin that Polish lawmakers had no intention of silencing Holocaust survivors over WWII-era crimes against Jews that were "worthy only of condemnation". 

In an interview with i24NEWS, Polish Holocaust survivor Edward Mosberg, who also spoke alongside Rivlin and Duda, defended his government against suggestions that Poland may have been complicit to the persecution of Jews during the Nazi occupation.

"There were no Polish extermination camps, nor a Polish Holocaust," the 92-year-old survivor remarked during the closing ceremony. 

But, he believes that the government will make changes to the new legislation, he told i24NEWS after participating in a meeting with the Polish president. 

He also stated that he doesn't believe anything will happen in the near future when asked if he was optimistic about the position of the Jewish community in Europe today, "especially not in Poland." 

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In a speech on the eve of the march Wednesday, Rivlin cemented that "no country can or should legislate the forgetting of Jews murdered during the Holocaust”, apparently referring to the controversial law.

Ahead of the march, Rivlin addressed the rift sparked between Israel and Poland by the controversial law, calling it a "dark shadow" over the countries' relations.

"Our meeting here is a great honor, but also a testimony to the great tragedy that has taken place here, we are meeting here at the March of the Living as a testimony to the memory of the Holocaust of the Jews," Rivlin said.

"Israel closely follows the academic and political debate in Poland on issues of memory and responsibility," Rivlin said. "We have an appreciation for the internal inquiry and the soul-searching of Polish society, but there is also a deep disagreement about the Jewish connection to Poland."

"We see the Holocaust as a result of anti-Semitism that led to the slaughter of the Jewish people out of a Nazi ideology that flourished on Polish soil," Rivlin said.

"We greatly appreciate anyone who gave his life to save Jews, but there were other phenomena as well...Here was land that allowed the Nazis to do whatever they liked not only in Poland but throughout Europe," the president added.

Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust during World War II, many of them in gas chambers in Nazi death camps.

The United Nations in 2007 designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to mark the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps.

Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day separately.

More than 213,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel today, many of them below the poverty line, according to survivors' groups.

Read More:

WATCH: Israel comes to a stand-still in memory of Holocaust victims

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