Jewish Journal

Israeli parliament to convene in Poland

Lawmakers and survivors travel to Auschwitz for Holocaust Remembrance Day

by Felice Friedson and Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

Posted on Jan. 27, 2014 at 11:14 am

Members of the Israeli parliament at the entrance of the former concentration camp on Jan. 27. Photo by Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Members of the Israeli parliament at the entrance of the former concentration camp on Jan. 27. Photo by Kacper Pempel/Reuters

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Moved by concern that few eyewitnesses to the Holocaust remain and determined to ensure that memory of the atrocities of that era pass to the next generation, a majority of Israel's parliamentarians will fly to Poland for a single day to convene a rare out-of-country session of the Knesset and march into the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps arm-in-arm with survivors.

At 3 a.m. on Monday, 64 members of the Knesset (parliament) including one of its 12 Arab members, its Speaker, the Chief Rabbi, and other senior officials along with 30 Holocaust survivors will board planes at Ben Gurion International Airport for the flight to Krakow. During their 16-hours on the ground, the entourage will be joined by Polish officials and join local clergy for an interfaith service commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day before entering the death camps.

The plans for the historic trek are not without obstacles. Right-wing Polish groups have been protesting the Knesset session claiming it infringes upon Polish sovereignty.

The historic event was the brainchild of 28-year old British-Israeli Jonny Daniels, executive director of From the Depths, a non-profit organization that works to keep memory of the tragic era alive as fewer and fewer survivors remain.

“My wife’s grandfather was married at that time and had two daughters age 4 and 10 months, roughly the age of my own daughters today, but they were murdered in Birkenau,” Daniels told The Media Line.

The trip is being underwritten largely by billionaire philanthropist Stewart Rahr.

For survivor David Frankel, 77, a retired Jerusalem District Court judge originally from Hungary, the trip will be deeply personal.

“If you want to visit your relatives, you go to Tel Aviv or New York,” he told The Media Line. “The only place I can visit is Auschwitz. I am going to unite with the memories of my relatives. They have no grave. I will say kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning) for them there.”

It will be Frankel’s fifth trip to Auschwitz but the first time he will be traveling with so many members of Israel’s parliament. He said that even after all of these years he finds it hard to grasp that half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered in just five weeks in 1944.

“The trip is a message to the world of 'never again,'” Frankel said. “We can never forget what happened there.”

Even after all of these years, survivor Gita Kofman, 75, gets emotional when she speaks about the Holocaust.

“This is not an easy trip to make at my age,” she told The Media Line. “But I do it in memory of my mother and all of my other relatives who died there. It is a great privilege to go as part of a delegation from the state of Israel. If Israel had existed at the time of the Holocaust, I am convinced it never would have happened.”

In deference to the advanced ages of participating survivors, three doctors and a nurse will travel with the group.

MK Issawi Frej, an Israeli Arab who is a member of a left-wing Jewish party said he tried to convince the other 11 Arab members to join the trip, but to no avail. “I think they are making a mistake,” he said. “This is not a Jewish issue. It is a human issue and affects all of us.”

“It doesn’t matter if the victims were Jews or Arabs – the Holocaust was a crime against humanity,” Frej, told The Media Line. “Every person must visit himself to see what evil humanity is capable of and to learn from it so we won’t repeat it.”

MK Aliza Lavie told The Media Line that for the one-minute speaking time allotted to each Knesset member at Auschwitz, she will use hers to recall Toby Trackeltaub, who amazingly created a Passover Haggadah (prayer book that contains the order for the Seder meal) written on toilet paper and handed to a friend before Toby expired during the infamous January 1945 death march.  Trackeltaub became famous after Lavie included her six-sentences in a book she published called, "Jewish Women's Prayer Book."

Referring to the religious admonition to Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt in each generation, Lavie explains that, “in each generation the story must be retold in the language and imagery of that generation. Toby’s vision of freedom and declaration of faith ring out in defiance of the wretchedness of her imprisonment and seeming abandonment by God."

In a stark illustration of the decline of the Holocaust generation, Daniels told The Media Line that only recently he had lunch with an 87-year old survivor who was excited to hear about plans for the Poland trip. But Daniels said, "His daughter just called to tell me he had a stroke and was in the hospital. It stressed to me why [this trip] had to happen now."

Veteran Israeli journalist Yaakov Ahimeir, who will be covering the trip, said, “It’s another dimension of the closeness of the state of Israel with the events of the Holocaust. I hope this very public visit will not replace personal thoughts but it is still very important.”

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