Oswiecim, Poland — Watching thousands of Poles dance to klezmer music just 50 miles from the Auschwitz death camp, Johnny Daniels could feel an ambitious plan taking shape.
The experience last year at Krakow’s annual Jewish Culture Festival prompted Daniels, a 28-year-old Israeli and Holocaust educator, to organize the largest-ever Knesset delegation to Auschwitz.
Nearly half the Israeli parliament was in Poland Monday to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 69th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. They also conducted a joint session with counterparts from the Polish parliament.
“At the festival, I realized the Holocaust had a huge impact also on Polish society, and I decided to do something connected to how we relate to each other,” said Daniels, the director of From the Depths, a nongovernmental education organization.
At the camp, the Israeli delegation — which comprised 58 Israeli lawmakers, including several ministers — marched to the Birkenau death complex in formation, flanked by the Knesset guard and flying Israeli flags. Amid the snow-filled crematoria, they stopped to sing the Israeli national anthem in the freezing wind before breaking into smaller groups, many of them praying and remembering murdered relatives.
Unlike during previous Israeli events in Auschwitz — including the 2003 flyover by Israel Air Force fighter jets — the visitors heard family stories from Poles like Piotr van der Coghen, whose father, a resistance fighter and medic, treated his Jewish fellow prisoners as an inmate at the Plaszow camp.
Another Polish lawmaker, Ewa Wolak, spoke at the joint inter-parliamentary session in Krakow about a growing awareness among Polish priests and farmers of the need to demarcate the countless mass graves of Jewish Holocaust victims that dot the Polish countryside.
For Poles, the Knesset delegation arrived as Polish interest in the Holocaust and Jewish culture continues to grow, yielding a slew of recent books and movies and the opening of several Jewish museums and culture festivals. Foremost among the new museums is the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, whose core exhibition is due to open later this year in Warsaw. The number of annual visitors to the Auschwitz museum has more than doubled since 1988, from 600,000 to 1.4 million.
There is a “growing recognition of how the Holocaust was an enormous loss also for Polish society,” said Shevah Weiss, a Poland-born Holocaust survivor and former Israeli ambassador to Warsaw. “Gradually, more and more Poles are discovering the enormity of that loss and are moved to attempt to recover some of it.”
Holocaust studies and interest in Polish Jewry’s heritage is growing in Israel, too. Israel’s education ministry last year announced a new program for teaching first graders about the Holocaust. Currently, the subject is not taught until junior high. Some 25,000 Israeli teenagers are sent to Poland each year, at a cost of $30 million annually.
Joining the Israeli lawmakers was a delegation of 24 Holocaust survivors, including Noah Kliger, who recalled reciting the Kaddish mourning prayer with other Jews while sitting on a heap of corpses in a Nazi railway car. They agreed to pray only after the son of one of the dead agreed to share his bread with them.
“Eating the bread, I asked where his father was,” Kilger said in his speech. “He said, ‘Somewhere under all these corpses.’”
Several U.S. politicians joined the ceremony as well, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who spoke of “a profound emotional experience,” and Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and Republican presidential candidate.
“As we’re standing here in our warm coats and still cold, I can’t imagine the suffering of those who were forced to work here in pajamas,” Huckabee told JTA. “The Knesset stands here as testament that the will of good is better than the will of evil. Their flag signifies how, had there been a Jewish state, there would’ve never been a Holocaust. That’s why there must always be a secure Jewish state.”
Sending the Knesset members cost Israeli taxpayers $130,000, according to The Marker daily. Another $400,000 was raised by From the Depths, Johnny Daniels’ outfit, to cover events surrounding the inter-parliamentary session in Krakow.
A large chunk of the organization’s budget for producing the event came from Stewart Rahr, an American philanthropist who grabbed some tabloid headlines last year after he reportedly sent a video to friends showing him having sex with three women in a limousine. Knesset spokesperson Yotam Yakir and Daniels both denied a New York Post report earlier this week that Rahr had covered the Knesset members’ travel costs as well.
“He’s a good man and a major donor to Jewish causes and also to this organization,” Daniels said.