Several hundred Auschwitz survivors and others held a Jewish memorial ceremony here Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp.
Jewish groups organized the ceremony outside the framework of official ceremonies planned by the Polish government Thursday and Friday. Members of the Jewish groups said the official program did not reflect the unique dimension of Jewish suffering at Auschwitz.
About 300 Jews, many of them elderly, marched from the entrance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, along the rail track that brought Jews here from across Europe, to the ruins of the camp crematoria.
Here they prayed and wept, chanting the El Male Rachamim, Yizkor and Kaddish prayers for the dead.
In English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish, speakers including survivors, Israeli representatives and other Jewish leaders commemorated the dead and declared that the Holocaust must not be forgotten.
“We know that God is merciful, but please, God, do not have mercy on those who created this place,” said Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“Those who have been here,” he said, “remember the nocturnal processions of children and more children and more children – frightened, quiet, so quiet and so beautiful.
“If we could simply look at one, our heart would break. Did it not break the heart of the murderers? God, merciful God, do not have mercy on those who had no mercy on Jewish children,” Wiesel said.
Wiesel is also head of the official U.S. delegation to the commemoration.
Jean Kahn, president of the European Jewish Congress, warned in his speech against the distortion of memory about the Holocaust.
He was highly critical of the Polish organization of the official ceremonies, which he accused of wanting to stage “a nationalist celebration by concealing the Jewish dimension of the Shoah.”
One of the few non-Jewish representatives attending the Jewish ceremony today was Roman Herzog, president of Germany.
Most of the participants appeared to be Polish Jews, but Jewish representatives also came from Hungary, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia and elsewhere.
Other speakers included Shevach Weiss, speaker of the Knesset; Kalman Sultanik, president of the Federation of Polish Jews and vice president of the World Jewish Congress; and Menashe Lorenzy, chairman of the Auschwitz Twins Association.
A representative of the Gypsies also spoke.
Official ceremonies Thursday included ceremonial meetings and a meeting of Nobel peace prize winners to draw up an appeal against intolerance.
An official ceremony was scheduled at Auschwitz for Friday.