At 10 a.m. on Thursday, sirens sounded across Israel for two minutes and the country came to a standstill in tribute to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Pedestrians stopped in their tracks and motorists stood next to their vehicles, heads bowed. In homes and businesses, people suspended their daily tasks to pay homage. Restaurants and places of entertainment shut down, and radio and TV programming focused on Holocaust documentaries and interviews with survivors. Yom HaShoah, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance day, is one of the most solemn days on the calendar of the Jewish state.
At 1 p.m. the annual March of the Living began at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz, led by Israel’s Chief of Police Yohanan Danino and featuring 10,000 people from 35 countries.
At the opening state ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Israeli leaders had linked the Nazi genocide to Iran’s suspected drive to acquire nuclear arms and urged the world to stop it. Shimon Peres, Israel’s head of state, told of his own family’s suffering at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. He and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both called on the world to “learn the lessons” of the Holocaust and stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “The Iranian regime is acting openly and decisively toward our destruction, and it is acting feverishly to develop a nuclear weapon to achieve this goal,” Netanyahu said.
However, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel urged not to make quick comparisons with the Holocaust. “Iran is a danger, but to claim that it is creating a second Auschwitz? I compare nothing to the Holocaust,” the writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate told the Israeli newspaper ‘Globes’.
Peres, who was born in the Polish town of Vishneva in 1923 and went to British-run Palestine before World War II, learned later how Nazi troops had beaten members of his family and ordered them to march toward the town’s synagogue. “Someone yelled ‘Jews, save yourselves!’ The Germans shot those who tried to escape. The rest arrived at the synagogue that was made of wood. Its doors were locked. They were all burned alive,” the 88-year-old Israeli president told the audience in Jerusalem. “That was also the last day of Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, my grandfather, my mentor. He was burned with a prayer shawl on his head. That was the last Jewish day in Vishneva. Not a single living Jew remained.”
Peres spoke before hundreds of Holocaust survivors and their families, Israeli leaders, diplomats and others. The Israeli flag flew at half-mast, and a military honor guard stood at one side of the podium as poems and psalms were read and the Jewish prayer for the dead was recited. Peres said humanity had to “learn the lessons of the Holocaust and face existential threats before it is too late. Iran is at the center of this threat. It is the center of terror. It poses a threat to world peace,” he said.
Netanyahu also warned of the danger posed by Iran. “Those who dismiss the Iranian threat as a whim or an exaggeration haven’t learned a thing from the Holocaust,” he said. “To be deterred from telling the truth – that today, like then, there are those who want to destroy millions of Jews – that is disrespectful of the Holocaust. That is an insult to its victims and that is ignoring its lessons.”
The ceremony at Yad Vashem included six survivors who lit six symbolic torches to commemorate the 6 million who died in the Holocaust. A video segment on each one’s personal story was presented.
Hours before the opening ceremony, an annual report by Tel Aviv University on worldwide anti-Semitism said the number of attacks declined in 2011, but they were generally more violent than in previous years. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, said his organization expected anti-Semitic attacks to rise if European economies sink into further crisis, if Israel attacks Iran or if violence erupts between Israel and the Palestinians.
Kantor cited the deadly attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse last month in which a rabbi and three children were shot dead, apparently by an extremist Muslim gunman, as indicative of his fears.