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Israel's Knesset at Auschwitz to mark liberation

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The largest ever Knesset delegation to leave Israel toured Auschwitz-Birkenau on Monday to mark the 69th anniversary of the Nazi German death camp's liberation and honour the dwindling number of survivors.

The 55 members of the Israeli parliament walked through the infamous "Arbeit macht frei" wrought-iron gate of the camp, which the Nazis set up in the southern city of Oswiecim after occupying Poland in World War II.

"We have a survivor dying every hour in Israel and elsewhere. It's so crucial to honour them before it's too late," said London-born Israeli Jonny Daniels, who organised the Knesset's visit.

The 28-year-old also told AFP it was "symbolic" to have so many Israeli government representatives there to hammer home the point that Jews now have a "place of our own".

The Knesset delegation, led by opposition leader Isaac Herzog and coalition chairman Yariv Levin of the governing Likud party, took part in anniversary ceremonies on Monday -- International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Camp survivors were also joined by parliamentarians from several European countries, the US and Canada.

"We came from the land of life to the place of evil, the place of death, the worst place on earth. We have come in your footsteps," Herzog said at the ceremony, addressing the victims.

Holocaust survivors earlier laid wreaths at the death wall where inmates were shot, with many wearing blue-and-white scarves evoking their prisoner garb.

Survivor Jacek Zieliniewicz, an 87-year-old who returns every year, told AFP that standing at the spot "one remembers those one lost here: friends, acquaintances and strangers too".

Zieliniewicz, who spent a year at the camp and credits luck and youthful vigour for his survival, says he regularly speaks at schools with words of warning.

"I tell the young folks that I'm counting on them to be smart enough and determined enough to never allow another such massacre to occur," he said.

The parliamentarians from across Europe were later to visit the nearby city of Krakow for an assembly on Holocaust lessons.

"Man has condemned men to this fate," Auschwitz-Birkenau museum director Piotr Cywinski said at the ceremony, quoting Polish author Zofia Nalkowska, whose 1946 book Medallions details the ordeals of survivors.

"This is true. And therefore only a man can save other men from such fate. This is the ultimate lesson of Auschwitz," he said.

One million European Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1940 to 1945, according to the museum.

More than 100,000 others including non-Jewish Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and anti-Nazi resistance fighters also died there.

There were only around 7,000 survivors in the camp when the Soviet troops liberated it on January 27, 1945.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140127/israels-knesset-at-auschwitz-mark-liberation-0