Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, and dozens of Holocaust survivors gathered at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on Sunday night as Israel ushered in the annual Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day.
In a furious condemnation of the international community, Netanyahu cited a trove of United Nations documents released last week indicating that the Allies knew about concentration and extermination camps as early as 1942. He blasted the Allied powers for refusing to act.
“If the powers in 1942 had acted against the death camps… 4 million Jews and millions of other people could have been saved,” Netanyahu lamented. “While horrific crimes were being committed against the Jews, while our brothers and sisters were being sent to the furnaces, the powers knew and did not act.”
The prime minister cited three causes for organized slaughter: widespread hatred of Jews, global indifference, and the weakness of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. The lesson, he said, was clear.
“We must be able to defend ourselves, by ourselves, against any threat, against any enemy,” the prime minister insisted.
Yad Vashem declared the theme of this year’s memorial day to be Restoring Their Identities: The Fate of the Individual During the Holocaust and it announced the opening of a new online exhibition entitled “Last Letters from the Holocaust: 1942” to coincide with the annual observance. The exhibition presents a selection of final messages written by Jews to their loved ones while trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1942. For many recipients, these were the final greetings and messages they would hear from their family members.
In addition, museum officials have asked survivors and their descendants to submit the names of family members and friends who were murdered during the Holocaust and to provide survivor testimony about their experiences from this period.
“It is a race against the clock to collect as many names of those murdered during the Holocaust as possible before there are no survivors left,” said Yad Vashem Hall of Names Director Dr. Alexander Avram.
Like Netanyahu, President Rivlin also focused on three lessons from the inferno of World War II: self-defense, a shared Jewish destiny, and the knowledge that man was created in God’s image.
“The Shoah has always been and will always be a program of annihilation that was planned and implemented against the Jewish People,” Rivlin contended. “There has been no previous historical event like this: extermination divorced from any political conflict, divorced from territorial issues, or from a struggle for dominance.”
“The Shoah is permanently branded in our flesh,” Rivlin continued. “Each of us has a number on our arm. Nevertheless, the Shoah is not the lens through which we should examine our past and our future.”
President Rivlin also spoke of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and of the importance of its lessons today. He also told the story of a group of Jews who lit Hanukkah candles in their bunks in Bergen-Belsen in 1943.
“The Bluzhover Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Spira, recited the blessing over the lighting of the Hanukkah candles,” Rivlin related. “His voice reverberated through the hut. He recited the first blessing, and the second and then continued to the third blessing, his large audience of Jews joining him as he said, ‘Blessed be He, O Lord, who has kept us alive, and preserved us and enabled us to reach this moment.’”
“I stand here on this evening of awe, in rebuilt Jerusalem, the capital city of the State of Israel, and in the name of our valiant brothers and sisters, victims of the Shoah, and the survivors, who struggled for survival, for their Jewishness, and for their humanity,” Rivlin declared. “On behalf of all of them, I say: Blessed be He, who has kept us alive, and preserved us and enabled us to reach this time. Am Yisrael Chai, the People of Israel live.”