The Associated Press
OSWIECIM, Poland - Marching in silence through this Polish town, more than 1,000 Jewish youths from around the world followed the footsteps yesterday of Auschwitz victims from the death camp's main gate to the ruins of the Nazi gas chambers.
Clad in blue jackets, some carrying Israeli flags, the marchers made their way through plowed fields and past small brick houses to the rail ramp of the Birkenau site, where the Nazis brought Jews from across Europe in freight cars to be gassed.
"We are here to remember and to never let it happen again," said 17-year-old David Situch, of Marseille, France, whose grandparents died at Auschwitz. "It is our duty to remember."
The mournful sound of the shofar, the traditional Jewish ram's horn, sent the marchers on their way from the main gate of the Auschwitz camp bearing the notorious inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" - German for "Work will set you free."
More than 1 million people, most of them Jews, perished in the gas chambers or from disease and starvation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex between 1940 and 1945.
The two-mile March of the Living was started by the Israeli education ministry in 1988 as a biannual event to be part of the high-school curriculum for Jewish students. The march in memory of the 6 million Holocaust victims is now held every year on Israel's Holocaust Memorial Day.
A slight drizzle deepened the somber atmosphere as the young Jews followed about 20 retired Israeli Army officers, including Auschwitz survivors, dressed in green uniforms.
Among them was Lt. Col. Gal Jacob, 73, of Holon, Israel, who spent three years hiding in the woods from 1942-44 in the Ukraine and lost a large part of his family in Auschwitz.
"The point of the March of the Living is that young people must know about the history, of what happened to the Jews," he said. "Our generation is coming to the end and we must continue the memory."
"It is impossible to explain in words what I feel now, all the bad memories come back," said Yehuda Ganz, 70, of Ramat Gan, Israel.
Ganz was taken to Auschwitz from Hungary in 1944, at the age of 14. His mother, sister and brother died here, and Ganz spent five months at the camp.
"It is tough to be here," said a 17-year-old from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who gave her name only as Tanya.
"My grandfather's entire family perished at Auschwitz, and we are here to tell the world we will never forget what happened to the Jews and we will never forget the people who died," she said.
This year's march was not attended by any prominent Israeli or Polish official. In 1998, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was joined by his Polish counterpart Jerzy Buzek in a march of 7,000 youths on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.
Last year, Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski walked in the march. Weizman sent a message of support to this year's event.
At the end of the march, young Jews were to place wooden tablets with the names of their relatives - Auschwitz victims - around the Birkenau railway tracks.
Before World War II, Poland had a thriving Jewish population of 3.5 million, compared to about 20,000 today. Some 75,000 non-Jewish Poles also perished at the camp.
In the Polish capital, Warsaw, around 200 people - among them Polish-born filmmaker Roman Polanski - joined government officials and Jewish community leaders yesterday in a silent wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 58th anniversary of the uprising against the Nazis by Jews crowded into the Warsaw Ghetto.
In the fall of 1940, the Nazis crowded some 400,000 Polish Jews into 741 acres in Warsaw. Most died of starvation and disease or were killed at the Treblinka death camp.
Some 200 young Jews took up arms as Nazi troops began to liquidate the ghetto on April 19, 1943. Most of the remaining 60,000 people in the ghetto were killed during the uprising, which was crushed after three months.