April 18, 2007

Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day with siren, memorial services


Marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel fell silent as a two-minute siren wailed across the country Monday morning followed by memorials at the Knesset and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority.

Names of Holocaust victims were read aloud at ”Every Person Has a Name” memorials held at both locations. The central theme for this year’s remembrance day is bearing witness.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took part in the Knesset memorial by reading the names of his wife’s relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu also read aloud the names of his wife Sara’s relatives.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres told of his farewell from his grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Melzer, who instructed him ”to be Jewish.”

”My Grandfather Zvi, Grandmother Rivka and one of their sons were burned to death while still gripping their bibles,” Peres related.

Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog told of his father’s cousin, Annette Goldberg, who was caught trying to cross the French border and was sent to her death in Auschwitz. On the train ride to the concentration camp, she threw a letter out the window which said: ”Dear mother, there are thousands in my condition. I will return soon.”

Iraqi-born Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer read a list of the names of Holocaust victims from Baghdad. Former Knesset Chairman Dan Tichon called for a solution by legislation for the Holocaust survivors’ dire financial troubles.

The memorials began after Israelis stood silently for two minutes to remember the victims of the Holocaust, as sirens wailed throughout Israel on Monday morning.

Pedestrians froze in their tracks, buses stopped on busy streets, and cars on major highways pulled over as the country paused to pay respect to the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

All day, television stations devoted their broadcasts to historical documentaries and movies, and radio stations played somber music and interviews with survivors. Schools held memorial services, places of entertainment were shut down and the Israeli flag was flown at half mast.

At Yad Vashem, the dignitaries gathered along with Holocaust survivors for the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Warsaw Ghetto Square. Later, Israelis flocked to the museum’s hall of remembrance to recite names of victims. Other ceremonies, prayers and music performances were planned.

At the Helen Keller house in Tel Aviv, a memorial took place for the deaf victims of the Holocaust. The Association of the Deaf in Israel (ADI) which held the memorial explained that deaf people needed unique survival techniques since they could not hear bombings, shootings or the warnings of an oncoming raid.

On Monday afternoon, the ”March of the Living” set out from Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, ending in the Birkenau extermination camp.

Birkenau was the biggest Nazi extermination camp, in which more than one million, predominantly Jewish prisoners, were murdered.

Over 8,000 teens from Israel and the Diaspora took part in the march, which commemorates the death marches which occurred toward the end of World War II.

Israel marked the opening of the remembrance day with vocal concern for the plight of aging survivors, many of whom are living in poverty in Israel.

”We must never accept a reality in which even one of the Holocaust survivors in Israel is living without dignity,” Acting President Dalia Itzik declared at the opening ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, referring to reports that a third of the Holocaust survivors living in Israel live below the poverty line.

On Monday morning, MK Ahmed Tibi (Ra’am-Ta’al) said that ”the Holocaust is the greatest crime in the history of humanity.” He added that those that deny the Holocaust must be condemned.

Hundreds of people, many of them Holocaust survivors, sat in rows at the central plaza at Yad Vashem for the ceremony Sunday evening, bundled up against the cold weather. A youth choir sang, and Israeli leaders addressed the somber gathering.

Itzik said at the beginning of the ceremony that ”the Holocaust is not only a stain on the history of Germany, not only on the history of European peoples, but a mark of Cain on all of humanity.”

Former MK Joseph (Tommy) Lapid, addressing the gathering of survivors, government leaders and foreign dignitaries, said that the world is yet again ignoring genocide – this time in Darfur.

Speaking on behalf of Holocaust survivors, Lapid said that while the Holocaust was a unique event in history, ”even after the Holocaust we witnessed genocide in Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, and we must cry out against the genocide currently being committed in Darfur in Sudan – and the world is sitting on its hands and send a few sacks of flour, not so much in order to feed the hungry, but rather to calm its conscience.”

Lapid, who currently chairs the Yad Vashem council, added that ”even today there is an existential threat to the Jewish people on the part of the Iranian president.”

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Lapid said ”[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is planning to have means of destruction compared to which the gas chambers at Auschwitz were just the beginning.”

”6 million who were murdered say to us, ‘We thought it could not happen, we relied on the goodness of others, and when we awoke from our illusions it was too late,’” said Lapid.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in his address that ”there are many, gathered in prestigious academic institutions, whose eyes are blinded and hearts are closed by hatred for Israel. They deny the right of the Jewish people to exist in a sovereign state. They are the first to find justification for any atrocious act against the residents of Israel and to vehemently condemn any defensive action taken by the State of Israel.”

Olmert noted that Israel celebrates its 59th independence day next week. ”The renewal of the Jewish people, its shaking off the ashes of the Holocaust for a new life and national rebirth in its historic birthplace, is the pinnacle of its victory,” he said.

With the passing years fewer and fewer survivors remain. There are some 250,000 survivors in Israel, about half of the worldwide total. Nearly 10 percent of the aging population dies each year.

In Israel, 2,000 die each month, a rate of 65 daily, according to experts cited in Israeli newspapers Monday.

With each passing day, the world loses its last live voices who can directly attest to the horrors of the Holocaust and confront a growing tide of worldwide Holocaust denial.

To this purpose, Yad Vashem has led a vigorous campaign in recent years to complete its database of names of Holocaust victims, encouraging survivors to come forth and fill out pages of testimony for those murdered, before their names and stories are lost forever.

Even so, Yad Vashem has only managed to gather just 3.1 million names. In the museum’s vast Hall of Names, half the folders remain empty.

Reading from her list of names on Monday, Michal Beer halted to choke back the tears.

The 78-year-old survivor of the Terezin concentration camp has submitted more pages of testimony than anyone else, documenting the lives of 450 friends and relatives, including her father and almost all the Jews in her hometown of Prostejov, in the Czech Republic.

”I feel as if a great weight has lifted from my heart,” she said of the pages of testimony. ”No one would have remembered them, if I hadn’t done this, who would have? Soon, I will no longer be around. We really are the last ones.”