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World marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day

6 million European Jews were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, of which an estimated 1.5 million were children.

By Erin Viner

Holocaust survivors and leaders around the world held memorial events today, while many others were held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual memorial is held on the anniversary the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp complex in Poland was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945. A small ceremony was held on the gruesome grounds today, where 1.1 million people were killed during World War II.

In a landmark address as the first Speaker of the Israeli Knesset to speak before the plenum of the German Bundestag at today’s main memorial event, Mickey Levy broke down in tears while reciting the Kaddish Jewish mourner’s prayer.

“More than 80 years ago Nazi oppressors called for the annihilation of our people before executing the most horrific crime in mankind’s history – the Holocaust,” said Knesset Member Levy upon his arrival in Berlin, vowing to “stand proud being Jewish, with 6 million silent souls by my side and deliver the speech in Hebrew, the eternal language of the Jewish people.”

“The visit symbolizes the true friendship between Israel and Germany. Two liberal democracies who share liberal values and a mutual commitment to remember the Holocaust, protect the sanctity of the murdered and fight anti-Semitism around the world,” he added.

“Preservation of the memory of the Holocaust is a heavy task and the duty of each generation, in order to educate future generations,” Levy said in the German parliament today, in the presence of Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and other dignitaries, amid a resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world.

Saying that both Germany and Israel emerged “from a national and historic trauma and to rebuild anew with courage and determination” by choosing life over death, said Levy, citing the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy 30:19, “As it was said “…I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

A gathering at the Mauthausen concentration camp was addressed by Israeli Foreign Minister and Alternate Premier Yair Lapid, whose grandfather Bela Lampel was among up to 320,000 other people were murdered there as part of a Nazi campaign to decimate the intelligentsia of subjugated people through labor.

“The Nazis thought they were the future, and that Jews would be something you only find in a museum. Instead, the Jewish state is the future, and Mauthausen is a museum,” said Lapid, alongside Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, Interior Minister Gerhard Karner and the Jewish Community President Oskar Deutsch.

In his speech, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer addressed Minister Lapid, saying: “Dear Yair, I apologize on behalf of the Republic of Austria for the crimes committed here. I apologize that your grandfather was murdered here.”

Minister Lapid recited the Mourner’s Kaddish and laid a wreath on behalf of the Israeli government, and later lighted a memorial candle in the ‘Room of Names’ in memory of his grandfather and all those who perished at Mauthausen.

Meanwhile in Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressed foreign dignitaries at a virtual event hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Massuah International Institute for Holocaust Studies.

“We can embrace lessons the Holocaust has taught us. Don’t take freedom for granted, cherish it. Don’t take justice for granted, challenge it. Don’t be a by-stander to cruelty, fight it. The world must learn from the horrors of the holocaust and do what is necessary to ensure that humanity does not succumb ever again to the evil that we’ve seen,” he said.

Drawing a parallel with past and current threats, Prime Minister Bennett asserted, “When we hear the Iranian regime’s daily calls to annihilate the State of Israel; as we speak they continue talking about murdering and destroying the state of Israel, the Jewish State; and when we see the rapid progression towards nuclear weapons, indifference is silent acceptance. A country that talks about annihilating the Jewish State should not be a legitimate partner for anything.”

Emphasizing that Jews will never again be as helpless as they were during WWII, Prime Minister Bennett said, “After the Holocaust rose a sovereign nation that has the power to defend itself. Israel is the Jewish people’s defiance over indifference. Today, we are free and strong and an independent state. On this occasion, the International Holocaust Memorial Day, let us honor those who perish by combating indifference with initiative; inaction with engagement; by combating justice with truth. You see, never again is more than just a #Hashtag, it’s a call to action. It is our vow that the Jewish people will never again be powerless; never again be voiceless and never again be homeless. The horrors of the holocaust cannot be erased. But we can build a good future for ourselves and for others. Am Yisrael Chai (Hebrew for ‘the People of Israel Live’).”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed a Yad Vashem event with the participation of over 70 representatives from the foreign diplomatic corps.

Saying that “the Holocaust is not a disputed footnote in history. It is the most sickening assault humanity has ever committed,” Herzog decried that “it is alarmingly clear that 77 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the shock is wearing off. We are seeing a surge in anti-Semitic assaults online; a normalization of anti-Semitic terminology in mainstream media; and an introduction of social media platforms refocused on Jew hatred to newer, younger audiences.”

To read President Herzog’s full speech, please see below.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Israeli Cabinet approved the proposal of Prime Minister Bennett, Foreign Minister Lapid and Social Equality Minister Merav Cohen to increase state funding of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Center in Jerusalem with an additional ₪29 million shequels (about $9 million) to expand programs to fight anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial, and increase remembrance.

“Yad Vashem is an organization of national significance for the State of Israel. It does not have to be an organization that pursues funds from donors. We have a responsibility as a nation to utilize it in order to deepen research into – and the remembrance of – the Holocaust. The goal of this first decision on the Cabinet table today is to – inter alia – provide for documenting the stories of the survivors’ heroism before they pass on. We do not have many years left and we need to take advantage of the time at our disposal for the survivors and for the coming generations,” said Social Equality Minister Cohen.

According to an annual report by the the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency, 2021 was the most anti-Semitic year of the last decade with more than 10 incidents recorded each day.

50% of the attacks took place in Europe, 30% in the United States (with a 100% increase in New York), followed by Canada and Australia

A new poll by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU)’s European Forum found that 53% of Jewish respondents believe the situation of Jews in Europe will worsen.

“This survey reveals the urgency of studying the multidimensionality of Israeli-European relation. We see that alongside the very strong trade relations and formal agreements between Israel and Europe, Israelis observe the rise of anti-Semitism and the growing power of the political right in Europe with great alarm,” said HU’s European Forum Director, Prof. Gili Drori.

A 152-page report released by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry said that protesters against COVID-19 measures who liken themselves to Jews under Nazi persecution are stoking global anti-Semitism. Such Holocaust tropes have become “widespread” and – along with violent demonstrations linked to the 11-day war with Gaza last May – are considered main factors behind physical or online attacks on Jews in Europe and North America in 2021.

Several politicians in the US and United Kingdom have in recent months apologized after suggesting vaccine or lockdown policies recalled Hitler’s regime, while some demonstrators against pandemic curbs have worn yellow stars like those the Nazis forced on European Jews. Others have disseminated “anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that Jews are responsible for the crisis and are using it for oppression, global domination, economic gain, etc.,” said the report, concluding that such displays reveal an erosion of factual knowledge about the genocide.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said Holocaust distortion or trivialization is itself anti-Semitic and can sometimes lead to actual endangerment of Jews.

“There are people so fraught with hate who can, when faced with such imagery, be tipped over into action,” he told Reuters.

The Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), a US-based non-profit, said that in 2020 and 2021 it had found 63.7 million engagements – participation, sharing or “liking” – during online discussions linking the pandemic to the Holocaust.

A call by Yad Vashem to condemn such discourse was apparently heeded by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who on Monday said the yellow star protests were “reprehensible.”

Last Thursday the UN General Assembly finally agreed on a definition of denial of the Holocaust in a draft proposed by Israel and Germany, and urged social media companies “to take active measures” to combat anti-Semitism.

“The General Assembly is sending a strong and unambiguous message against the denial or the distortion of these historical facts,” said Germany’s UN Ambassador Antje Leendertse, adding tha, “Ignoring historical facts increases the risk that they will be repeated.”

Former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, whose parents and brother were among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and who himself survived a concentration camp as a child, had a more personal appeal during a Reuters interview.

“Please leave the word ‘Holocaust’ for the Holocaust – and nothing but it,” he appealed.


Full text of President Isaac Herzog’s speech:

Yehudit Berkovitch had just finished the first grade, and was peacefully living with her parents and eight brothers and sisters in 1941, when the Nazis invaded her home country, Poland. She was rounded up and sent with her family to the Lodz Ghetto, where her parents and three siblings died of disease and starvation. Yehudit was eventually sent to Auschwitz, and from there to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

On April 15, 1945, lying sick with typhus in the camp’s barracks she heard a commotion outside, the sound of tanks crashing through the fence, and then the voice of a British Army officer calling out: “My brothers and sisters, you have been liberated, the war is over, you are free”.

From the depths of the hell of the Nazi camp, Yehudit lifted herself up. She came to Israel, and served in the IDF during our War of Independence. She became a teacher, established a center to aid new immigrants, and raised a beautiful family. I recently had the great honor of congratulating her on her 90th birthday.

This was especially moving for me, because the British officer, whose voice Yehudit heard in Bergen-Belsen declaring that she was free, was my father, Chaim Herzog of blessed memory.

My father, who later became the State of Israel’s sixth president, was a WWII fighter in the British Army, who took part in liberating Bergen-Belsen three months after the Red Army’s heroic liberation of Auschwitz.

My father related the terrifying scenes he encountered in Bergen- Belsen, scenes of barely clad human skeletons, death, raging typhus, and starvation, smells of disease and torture. These scenes shocked and shamed humanity. The result of the Nazis’ genocidal antisemitic ideology, and of the willingness of too many to stay silent and turn a blind eye.

They contributed to the creation of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, and of entirely new fields of humanitarian and human rights law.

The nations of the world instituted this momentous International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they committed to the promise of Never Again, and created institutions and legal norms to make that promise a reality.

Ladies and gentlemen, though a great deal has been done, it is alarmingly clear that 77 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the shock is wearing off. We are seeing a surge in antisemitic assaults online; a normalization of antisemitic terminology in mainstream media; and an introduction of social media platforms refocused on Jew hatred to newer, younger audiences.

We are seeing how the world’s worst human rights violators are being elected to the UN’s human rights bodies. We see how radical regimes and even terrorist groups, are distorting international law while some members of the academic and diplomatic community play along.

We see the Ayatollah regime in Iran calling for the annihilation of the State of Israel, initiating terrorism against Jewish communities around the world, and murdering civilians throughout the Middle East while some simply look the other way.

We see how present-day radicalism and antisemitism are overlooked, for economic or political gain. And, perhaps most disturbing, we see how the truth about the past is trivialized, and alternative facts are drowning out history. This is dangerous, because in the 21st century, the truth cannot sustain itself. It is our obligation to do so.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Holocaust is not a disputed footnote in history. It is the most sickening assault humanity has ever committed.

Commemorating the Holocaust is therefore not a symbolic gesture; it is the duty of every person, of every nation across the globe. It is mine and it is yours. When we let our guard down and ignore our responsibility, the forces of hate quickly rear their heads and become bolder.

When we fail to strengthen our pledge Never Again, we are disregarding our debt to our past and forfeiting our rights on our future.

Friends, ours is the last generation privileged to hear a first-hand account from a Holocaust survivor, from a partisan, from the Righteous Among the Nations.

In a few years’ time, the duty to never forget will be ours alone. The obligation to tell our children’s children about the horrors of the Holocaust, to warn them about the dangers of antisemitism, hatred, racism and intolerance, will be entirely up to us.

So today, let us reaffirm our commitment to remembering the lessons of the Holocaust, together. Let us preserve the legacy of the Holocaust, by showing zero tolerance for all forms of antisemitism, racism and extremism, and by taking effective and timely steps to counter them.

I call upon all nations to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which states in the clearest of terms what hatred of Jews looks like.

We must make it clear to all radical regimes that they will never be treated as legitimate members of the international community until they end their calls for genocide and support for terror.

We must not allow political considerations to mute our moral compass and prevent us from speaking out, when those who commit gross violations of human rights attempt to use the UN or other international forums to hide or further their crimes. And we must expose and denounce any attempts to distort, rewrite or forget what happened, not so long ago.

I want to thank Yad Vashem and its Chair, my friend Dani Dayan, for serving as a moral lighthouse, reminding us of our responsibility to the future.

As President of the State of Israel, I look forward to working with all of you, to ensure that the Holocaust and its lessons are never forgotten and are passed down from generation to generation, within this distinguished family of nations. Thank you.