Among those taking part in the three kilometre March of the Living were around 5,000 Israelis.
The march goes from the red-brick barracks of Auschwitz to the infamous, purpose-built gas chambers in Birkenau where at least 1.1 million people perished as Nazi Germany tried to wipe out Europe’s Jews.
“The Holocaust is part of our history, which cannot be erased and should not be forgotten. We are here to see how to take the March of the Living into the future and ensure that the message it carries continues,” an Israeli official said in Krakow on the eve of the event.
She raised the fear that, as survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, many of whom are now in their 80s, die off, the stark message carried in the now silent ruins of the camp might lose some of its impact.
“It is a real fear of mine, something that worries me,” she said.
Among those attending the annual tribute to the Holocaust’s estimated six million victims was former Israel prime minister Shimon Peres, a winner of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize and number two in Israeli prime minister-designate Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party.
The march wends its way from the haunting “Arbeit macht Frei” (Work Brings Freedom) sign at the entrance of the Auschwitz camp, along the streets of the southern Polish town of Oswiecim, to the rubble of two of Birkenau’s gas chambers.
The idea of staging the march germinated about 20 years ago, to try to dim the voices of those who deny the Holocaust ever happened.
Originally open only to Jews, people of all faiths were invited to take part in the march in the 1990s.
George Kopteff, a high school history teacher, has brought a group of 27 non-Jewish teenagers from Finland to this year’s march.
“It’s easy to show pictures and tell stories, but when you are here and you see the place, history opens up to you in a totally different way,” Mr Kopteff said.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was built up between 1940 and 1945 by Poland’s Nazi German occupiers from a concentration camp for 10,000 prisoners to a slick machine of mass extermination.
The camp was originally confined to 20 Polish army barracks on the outskirts of Oswiecim, but in 1941 the Nazis began to extend their “zone of terror” to include the nearby village of Brzezinka — Birkenau in German, where they built interconnecting gas chambers and crematoria.
Birkenau was fully operational in 1943, and it was here that more than one million European Jews, about 20,000 gypsies, and several hundred political prisoners were killed.