A few weeks ago was Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Berkenau by the Red Army on that same day in 1945. To commemorate the momentous event, 49 representatives from various countries gathered in Jerusalem for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum on Jan. 23. Yad Vashem, an institution dedicated to memorializing the Holocaust, together with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and European Jewish Congress president Dr. Moshe Kantor, hosted the summit.
This summit was not only significant for its purpose of commemorating the Holocaust but was also momentous for Israeli history, as the attendance entailed the largest delegation of foreign representatives Israel has ever held at once. The summit was titled, “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Anti-Semitism.” To contribute to this gathering, each representative from their respective county prepared a speech relating to the theme of the event. Notable speakers included President Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Prince Charles, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and French President Emmanuel Macron. Speaking at the event, Prince Charles explained the importance of this year’s theme, asserting that, “The lessons of the Holocaust are searingly relevant to this day. Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises and still seek new victims.” Macron similarly warned, “today, in our democracy, anti-Semitism is resurging… Anti-Semitism… is not only the problem of Jews …. when anti-Semitism appears, all racism spreads.”
President Steinmeier of Germany admitted that his country still has a long way to go in moving past its dark history, especially given the recent attempt to break into the Halle Synagogue on Yom Kippur by an armed terrorist. He also commented on the nature of the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, claiming that “crude anti-Semitism is cloaked in supposed criticism of Israeli policy,” and that Germans are criticizing Israel as a veiled attack on Jews. With the rising prevalence of anti-Semitism globally, world leaders clearly believe it is vital to commemorate this day and ensure a horrific event like the Holocaust will never happen again.
The forum soon transformed into the delegates addressing the current issues with Iran’s government, another enemy of the Jewish People and of Israel. Pence characterized Iran as “the leading state purveyor of anti-Semitism” and demanded that the world oppose “the one government in the world that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and threatens to wipe Israel off the map.” Netanyahu echoed similar sentiments and called upon all governments of the world to come together to confront Iran. Netanyahu named Iran “the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet – a regime that openly seeks to develop nuclear weapons and annihilate the one and only Jewish state.”
Commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau was widespread globally even apart from the event at Yad Vashem. To honor International Holocaust Remembrance Day, two Russian astronauts, Oleg Skripochka and Alexsandr Skvortsov, paused from their work on the International Space Station and posed for a zero-gravity picture with a sign that reads “We Remember” in both English and Russian. Just a week earlier, 80 Holocaust survivors celebrated their Bar and Bat mitzvahs at the Kotel. During the Holocaust, many of those who turned 12 and 13 could not celebrate the coming of age event. At the celebration, the men wrapped themselves in Tefillin, and, together with the Bat Mitzvahs, sang “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” (We Brought Peace Unto you), remembering their suffering and the peace that washed over them. Afterward, they ate, sang, and danced together.
This celebration was a part of the “Perah L’Nitzul” project and was organized by the Social Integration Administration in Rishon Lezion, the Community Resources Department in Social Inclusion Administration, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Ministry of Social Equality, and the Claims Conference. Rishon Lezion is home to 9,000 Holocaust survivors and, as their mayor, Raz Kinstlich affirms, “We embrace Holocaust survivors all year long. We placed a goal for ourselves to reach every Holocaust survivor in the city, to help them with all their needs…and to hear their stories.” The Perah L’Nitzul project is an extension of Rishon Lezion’s goal and is dedicated to providing support and social interactions for Holocaust survivors.
One survivor, Ze’ev Boirski, was nine years old at the start of the war and turned 13 in a Cyprus refugee camp. He finally celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the age of 87. Biorski expressed great gratitude to Rishon Lezion and Mayor Kinstlich “for every little thing that he does for us Holocaust survivors,” especially in organizing this event. He said, “I’ve no phrases to clarify how large this was for me.” Bella Walt, a 91-year-old celebrant, was born in Poland, where she lived in a ghetto, and from there she and her mom went to a refugee camp in Siberia. In 1966, she moved to Israel and helped found Rishon Lezion. She is living in Israel without her children, and her husband passed away. She reflected on her life and this special occasion and confirmed, “This event was closure for me.”
It is clear that even with 75 years having passed, the memories from Auschwitz-Birkenau still lurks in the Jewish consciousness, and it is up to the next generation to commemorate the tragedies survivors went through while also celebrate their everlasting strength and provide them with support.