Even now, many years after the darkest time in our people’s history - as I walk upon the safe ground of the State of Israel, my body convulses as I look upon the horrifying image that encapsulates these dark times - the gate at the entrance to the Auschwitz extermination camp.
On Monday and Tuesday, unlike every other Holocaust Remembrance Day over these past few decades, the camp remains empty.
The thousands of Jews from across the globe who usually visit the camp every year have stayed at home due to the coronavirus epidemic - but we will be back, strong and with our heads held high, to make sure never again.
The renowned Israeli Holocaust author Yehiel De-Nur, also known by his pen name Ka-Tsetnik, said in his testimony during the Adolf Eichmann trials: “Planet Auschwitz. I was there for about two years. The time there is not the same as it is here, on Earth… And the inhabitants of this planet had no names. They had no parents and no children.”
Right after giving his testimony, De-Nur collapsed on the witness stand.
I met him years after the incident, and told him: “ On one matter I disagree with you. Auschwitz wasn't on a different planet; that makes it too easy to say 'What did we know? What did we understand? The whole thing happened on a different planet'.”
It is unjust to say Auschwitz was a different planet as it unjustly sweeps this pestilence from our own domain in an unrealistic manner.
Auschwitz was here, with us, in our generation, before the eyes of the entire world.
Most of the world (at least those who cared) knew about Auschwitz as early as 1942, more so in 1943, and all the more in 1944, while trains filled with 50,000 Hungarian Jews were dispatched daily to the camp be exterminated.
How can you say it happened on a different planet?
It was people like us who perpetrated these atrocities. Some had even graduated from universities after studying enlightened German philosophers and spiritual leaders such as Goethe, Heinrich Heine (who was of Jewish descent) and Immanuel Kant.
And the world stood by.
It is true that Auschwitz was different: No flowers grew there, no children born, raised and educated, it was a factory and an industry of death.
It was there that the cursed Dr. Josef Mengele stood, and with a glance decided who was worthy of staying alive to bolster the camp’s workforce, and who was inadequate and to be sent to the gas chambers.
With a flick of his wrist he decided who was to be left alive and who would be sent to death.
Every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day, thousands of young Jews from all over the globe walk the same route that those sentenced to death walked so many years ago. When I walked that route, during the very first March of the Living in 1988, one line of the famed Jewish partisans' song echoed in my head: “And our marching step will thunder: we survive!”
This year we could not march that same route, and no rendition of the Israeli national anthem HaTikvah will be heard in this valley of Jewish suffering.
Even so, every one of us knows that even without the march, the memory lives on.
Jews remember the commandment: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt.”
There will never be another Amalek like the Nazis, who threw millions of innocents into gas chambers and planned to eradicate an entire people from the face of the Earth.
But it is this people, our people who are the people of eternity and will remain so until the ends of times.
What was their last commandment before departing this world? Do not forget us, do not forgive this terrible crime, and let those who live continue our heritage and prove to the world that the people of Israel are alive, and will live until the end of times.
The writer is chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and a former chief rabbi of Israel