It was clear from the get-go that this international assembly meant business, starting as it did without preamble, showing statistics itemizing the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic acts across a giant screen.
By Deborah Fineblum, JNS
Jerusalem: It’s a city that stops everything for a minute each May for Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, remembering those who perished, as well as those who barely escaped with their lives. But on Thursday, it remembered again.
And this time, the city didn’t remember alone. Leaders from 46 nations, including leaders from the four World War II victorious allies – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles and France’s Emmanuel Macron – gathered to both honor the dead and make a strong statement of support for the living. The historic occasion: the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, officially titled the “World Holocaust Forum 2020, Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism.” Hosted by Yad Vashem‒The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, the World Holocaust Forum Foundation and the President of the State of Israel, this was the first such forum to be held in Israel.
It was clear from the get-go that the assembly meant business, starting as it did without preamble, simple statistics showing the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic acts flashing across a giant screen. The star-studded gathering was designed to make a point with and to the leaders, their citizens and the rest of the world, as 100 of Israel’s remaining 200,000 survivors sat and quietly took it all in.
Each speaker made the point in his own way.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Allied forces and the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives and their families to save Jews. He also described Auschwitz as not just the symbol of evil, “but, more than that, for our people, it’s also the symbol of Jewish powerlessness. Today, however, we have our ancient homeland. The Jewish people have learned the lesson of the Holocaust,” he said.
And, although this people appreciates the support of the nations, it must be able defend itself and “remain the master of its fate.”
He also warned about the danger posed by both the current uptick in anti-Semitism, in addition to the “tyrants of Tehran who threaten all of the Mideast and all of the world.”
But Netanyahu switched to Hebrew for his most intimate and emotional message: “Auschwitz the destruction; Jerusalem the resurrection. Auschwitz was incarceration and enslavement; Jerusalem is freedom and liberty. Auschwitz was death; Jerusalem is life.”
‘I wish I could say our remembrance makes us immune to evil’
Other powerful speeches included those by survivor Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, formerly chairman of Yad Vashem and, before that, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau, who spoke about his mother’s charge to him not to break their ancient rabbinical family line; by Pence, who shared the powerful impact of visiting Auschwitz, saying “one cannot walk there without being overcome, one cannot see the pile of shoes, the boxcars and those grainy photos of the men, women and children brought to their death without asking, ‘How could they?’ ”
He, too, had cautionary words about Iran: “In the same spirit, we must stand strong against the leading state purveyor of anti-Semitism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and finally, we must have the courage to recognize all the leaders and all the nations gathered here that today we have the responsibility and the power to ensure that what we remember here today can never happen again.“
“As [U.S.] President [Donald] Trump said, ‘Today, we remember not simply the liberation of Auschwitz but also the promise of freedom, of a people restored to their rightful place … ’ ”
And Charles, the Prince of Wales, speaking of survivors he has known and admired, added that “the Holocaust must never be allowed to become simply a fact of history. … The lessons of the Holocaust are searingly relevant to this day … though they may adopt new lies and new disguises, new words used to mark others as enemies.”
Perhaps most poignant were the words of German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who refused to shrink from his country’s guilt. “It was Germans who committed one of the worst crimes in the history of humanity; it was committed by my people. Seventy-five years later, I stand here laden with this heavy historic burden.”
Steinmeier was also honest about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in his country and elsewhere. “I wish I could say that our remembrance makes us immune to evil. … I wish I could say that the Germans have learned from history, but I cannot,” he said. “ … I cannot say that when only a thick wooden door prevents a right-wing terrorist from causing a bloodbath in a synagogue in the city of Halle on Yom Kippur.”
The speeches were surprisingly free of political posturing, although the absence of Andrzej Duda was somewhat obvious; the Polish president opted out of the proceedings, although it is said that he is planning to attend the 75th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27.
Forum founder Moshe Kantor told the press at a pre-event media briefing that this is “not the stage for such disputes” and preferred to focus on the leaders who did come to share their support for both keeping the memories of the Holocaust alive and making a statement against the current wave of anti-Semitic acts worldwide. “That sends a message.”
He added that he’s concerned that one-third of the voters in “a great nation” like England voted for the Labor Party when Jeremy Corbyn had such a clear anti-Semitic track record. “The extremists want to get their power in a democratic way like Hitler did. And, to tolerate anti-Semitism, we know where that can lead.”
Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev also told the journalists that “the fact that nearly 50 leaders from around the world are gathered here means we are creating a united front. The mission: to combat the growing threat of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia.”
And after each of the 46 leaders (more if you count U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and the Vatican representative) mounted the stage to lay memorial wreaths—a somber ceremony that dramatically demonstrated both the unprecedented global powerhouse gathered in that place, as well as their shared sense of purpose—the day’s message was spelled out clearly.
“Never Again Is Now,” the words blazed in big letters on the screen. “Now Is the Time to Fight Back.”