‘We Understand the Past Better Than the Present’

anniversary auschwitz liberation
Flags prepared at the President’s Residence in Yerushalayim Jan. 22 for the official dinner hosting the world leaders arriving in Israel for the World Holocaust Forum, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In the largest event of its kind in Israel’s history, 49 world leaders arrived to mark the liberation of Auschwitz and to express concern that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learned.

While the leaders and representatives of dozens of countries gathered in Yerushalayim last week to mark the past — the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz — the present, the surge of anti-Semitism worldwide, was also on everyone’s minds.

With the resurgence of anti-Semitism across much of Europe and North America, there are still lessons to be learned 75 years after the end of the Holocaust, one speaker after another noted at the conference at Yad Vashem, officially titled the “Fifth World Holocaust Forum 2020: Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism.”

Leaders from over 40 nations, including from the four victorious Allies of World War II — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles and France’s President Emmanuel Macron — attended the biggest political gathering in Israel’s history.

Yerushalayim was teeming with police officers, with some schools canceling classes and the main Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv highway from the airport closed as motorcades streamed through with arriving heads of state.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem Jan. 23. (Abir Sultan/Pool via Reuters)

President Reuven Rivlin, at a reception he hosted Wednesday night for the distinguished guests, said, “I hope and pray that the leaders of the world will stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism, in defending democracy and democratic values. This is our challenge. This is our choice.”

The main event at Yad Vashem was preceded by the unveiling and dedication of a monument to the defenders of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, during its siege by the Nazis. The unveiling, at Gan Sacher, Yerushalayim, was attended by President Vladimir Putin, who was visibly moved by the gesture.

Later Thursday, Rivlin opened proceedings at Yad Vashem by calling anti-Semitism and racism a “malignant disease” that attacks people, their states and countries. “No democracy is immune to that,” he said.

Putin, President Emmanuel Macron, Prince Charles, Vice President Pence and Prime Minister Netanyahu followed Rivlin in denouncing hatred.

Netanyahu: The World Turned Its Back on Us

Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke of the darkness, of the feeling of helplessness and the rebuilding process after the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Speaking in Hebrew, he paralleled Auschwitz and Yerushalayim: “Auschwitz and Yerushalayim: an abyss and a peak. Auschwitz — extermination. Yerushalayim — revival. Auschwitz — enslavement. Yerushalayim — freedom. Auschwitz — death. Yerushalayim — life.

“Seventy-five years ago, our people — the Jewish People — emerged from the largest killing field in the history of humanity. The survivors do not forget anything: the helplessness, the endless suffering, the flames and the smoke, the bereavement and the loss. But they also remember with deep gratitude the day of liberation, the entry of the Red Army into Auschwitz, the immense sacrifice of the Allies, soldiers and peoples alike.

“I come here, with President Rivlin and President Putin, from a moving ceremony – the dedication of the monument in memory of the victims of the siege of Leningrad. This is one example of the inconceivable price of the victory over the Nazis.

“But especially today, it must be said: For the six million of our people, including 1.5 million children, [it was] too late.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at a ceremony to inaugurate a memorial commemorating citizens and defenders of the siege of leningrad, in Yerushalayim on January 23. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

“And therefore, at the foundation of the revival of the State of Israel is one main imperative: There will never be a second Holocaust.”

In English, Netanyahu thanked the Allies for their assistance and sacrifice in saving the Jewish Nation. “Without that sacrifice, there would be no survivors today.

“Yet we also remember that some 80 years ago, when the Jewish people faced annihilation, the world largely turned its back on us, leaving us to the most bitter of fates.”

Netanyahu continued to mention the present, after delving into the past.

“Has the world learned the lessons of the Holocaust?” he asked. “There are some signs of hope — and this extraordinary gathering is one of them. Today, the dangers of racism, hateful ideologies and anti-Semitism are better understood. Many recognize a simple truth: that what starts with the hatred of the Jews doesn’t end with the Jews. Represented here today are governments that understand that confronting anti-Semitism in all its forms protects their societies as well.

“And Israel deeply appreciates this. We also appreciate, as many understand, as President Macron said yesterday, that anti-Zionism is merely the latest form of anti-Semitism. These are all real signs of hope and understanding and cognizance of how to protect our civilization and our world.

“And yet, I am concerned. I am concerned that we have yet to see a unified and resolute stance against 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.

“Israel salutes President [Donald] Trump and Vice President Pence for confronting the tyrants of Tehran that subjugate their own people and threaten the peace and security of the entire world. They threaten the peace and security of everyone in the Middle East and everyone beyond. I call on all governments to join the vital effort of confronting Iran.

“I promise that the words ‘Never again’ will be no empty slogan but an eternal call to action.”

Putin: This Crime Had Accomplices

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered an emotional speech emphasizing shared responsibility and our duty to the past and the future:

“We mourn all the victims of the Nazis, including the six million Jews tortured in ghettos and death camps and killed cruelly during raids. Forty percent of them were citizens of the Soviet Union, so the Holocaust has always been a deep wound for us, a tragedy we will always remember.

“Before visiting Jerusalem,” Putin said, “I looked through original documents, reports by Red Army officers after the liberation of Auschwitz. I must tell you, colleagues, it is very difficult, unbearable, to read these military reports, documents describing in detail how the camp was set up, how the cold-blooded killing machine worked.

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U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaking at Yad Vashem Jan. 23. (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun/Pool)

“Many of them were hand-written by soldiers and officers of the Red Army on the second or third day after the liberation of the prisoners, and [they] convey the shock that the Red Army soldiers and officers experienced from what they saw there, from testimonies that caused pain, indignation and compassion.

“January 27 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In this hell, where people from different countries were brought for torture, monstrous experiments and mass killing, hundreds of thousands of people of different ethnicities died. More than half of them were Jews.

“The crimes committed by the Nazis, their deliberate, planned, and, as they said, ‘final solution to the Jewish issue,’ is one of the darkest and most shameful pages of modern world history.

“But we should not forget that this crime also had accomplices. They were often crueler than their masters. Death factories and concentration camps were served not only by the Nazis, but also by their accomplices in many European countries.

“In the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, where these criminals were operating, the largest number of Jews were killed. Thus, about 1.4 million Jews were killed in Ukraine, and 220,000 people were killed in Lithuania. I draw your attention, friends, to the fact that this is 95% of the pre-war Jewish population of this country. In Latvia, 77,000 Jewish people were killed. Only a few hundred Latvian Jews survived the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust was deliberate annihilation of a people. But we must remember that the Nazis intended the same fate for many other peoples. Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles and many other peoples were declared Untermensch. Their land was meant to serve as living space for the Nazis, providing for their prosperous existence, while the Slavs and other peoples were meant either to be exterminated or to become slaves without rights, culture, historical memory and language.

“Back in 1945, it was first of all the Soviet people who put an end to these barbaric plans. As it has just been said, they protected their Fatherland and liberated Europe from Nazism. We paid a price no nation could even imagine in their worst dreams: a toll of 27 million deaths.

“We will never forget this. The memory of the Holocaust will serve as a lesson and a warning only if it remains fully intact, without any omissions. Unfortunately, today the memory of war and its lessons and legacy often fall subject to the immediate political situation. This is completely unacceptable. It is the duty of current and future politicians, state and public figures to protect the good name of the living and fallen heroes, civilians and victims of the Nazis and their allies.

“We must use everything we have — our informational, political and cultural capabilities as well as the reputation and influence our countries have in the world — to this end. I am sure that everyone present here today, in this audience, shares these concerns and is ready to protect truth and justice together with us.

“We are all responsible for making sure that the terrible tragedies of this war will not happen again, that the generations to come will remember the horrors of the Holocaust, the death camps and the siege of Leningrad — Prime Minister Netanyahu has just said that today a monument to the victims of the siege was unveiled here in Jerusalem — Babi Yar, and the burned-down village of Khatyn, remember that we must remain alert and must not overlook when the first seeds of hate, chauvinism and anti-Semitism take root, or when people start to indulge in xenophobia or other similar manifestations.

“Destruction of the past and lack of unity in the face of threats can lead to terrible consequences. We must have the courage to be straight about this and do everything to defend peace.”

Steinmeier: I Wish I Could Say the Germans Have Learned From History

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier began his speech with the blessing of Shecheyanu. “What a blessing, what a gift, it is for me to be able to speak to you here today at Yad Vashem,” he exclaimed.

“Here at Yad Vashem burns the Eternal Flame in remembrance of the victims of the Shoah. This place reminds us of their suffering. The suffering of millions. And it reminds us of their lives — each individual life.”

It was striking that Steinmeier refused to shrink from his country’s guilt.

“I, too, stand before this monument as a human being — and as a German,” the president said. “I stand before their monument. I read their names. I hear their stories. And I bow in deepest sorrow.

“[The victims] were human beings. And this also must be said here: The perpetrators were human beings. They were Germans.

“Those who murdered, those who planned and helped in the murdering, the many who silently toed the line — they were Germans. The industrial mass murder of six million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity, it was committed by my countrymen. The terrible war, which cost far more than 50 million lives, it originated from my country.

“Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, I stand before you all as president of Germany — I stand here laden with the heavy, historical burden of guilt.

“Yet at the same time, my heart is filled with gratitude for the hands of the survivors stretched out to us, for the new trust given to us by people in Israel and across the world, for Jewish life flourishing in Germany. My soul is moved by the spirit of reconciliation, this spirit which opened up a new and peaceful path for Germany and Israel, for Germany, Europe and the countries of the world.

“The Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire. We want to live up to our responsibility. By this, you should measure us.”

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German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier speaking at Yad Vashem Jan. 23. (Abir Sultan/Pool via Reuters)

Steinmeier then turned to the present. “I stand before you, grateful for this miracle of reconciliation, and I wish I could say that our remembrance has made us immune to evil.

“Yes,” he noted, “we Germans remember. But sometimes it seems as though we understand the past better than the present. The spirits of evil are emerging in a new guise, presenting their anti-Semitic, racist, authoritarian thinking as an answer for the future, a new solution to the problems of our age.”

Steinmeier was also honest about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in his country and elsewhere in Europe and across the world.

“I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading. I cannot say that when Jewish children are spat on in the schoolyard, I cannot say that when crude anti-Semitism is cloaked in supposed criticism of Israeli policy. 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.

“Of course, our age is a different age. The words are not the same. The perpetrators are not the same. But it is the same evil.

“And there remains only one answer: Never again! Nie wieder!

“That is why there cannot be an end to remembrance. This responsibility was woven into the very fabric of the Federal Republic of Germany from day one. But it tests us here and now. This Germany will only live up to itself if it lives up to its historical responsibility.

“We fight anti-Semitism! We resist the poison that is nationalism! We protect Jewish life! We stand with Israel!

“Here at Yad Vashem, I renew this promise before the eyes of the world. And I know that I am not alone. Today we join together to say ‘No’ to anti-Semitism! No to hatred!”

Steinmeier concluded by saying that the world’s remembrance of this will defeat the abyss. “Our actions will defeat hatred. By this I stand. For this I hope.”

Vice President Pence: We Must Stand Strong Against Iran

Vice President Mike Pence called for the world to stand up to Iran, drawing a parallel between the Islamic Republic and Nazi Germany.

Like other global leaders who spoke, Pence said “we must stand together” against the rising anti-Semitism in many countries across the world.

“In that same spirit, we must also stand strong against the leading state purveyor of anti-Semitism. The one government in the world that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and calls to wipe Israel off the map,” he said. “The world must stand strong against the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Pence said that the Holocaust showed “what happens when the powerless cry for help and the powerful refuse to answer.”

The vice president noted that the word “zachor — remember” appears no fewer than 169 times in Tanach — for memory is the constant obligation of all generations.

“And today we pause to remember what President Donald Trump rightly called the ‘dark stain on human history’ — the greatest evil ever perpetuated by man against man in the long catalogue of human crime,” he said.

Pence recalled his visit last year to Auschwitz. “One cannot walk the grounds of Auschwitz without being overcome with emotion and grief. One cannot see the piles of shoes, the gas chambers, the crematoriums, the lone box car facing the gates of the camp … without asking, ‘How could they?’” he said.

This gathering was not only to “remember the names and the faces and the promise of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust,” Pence said, but also to honor the Jews who survived and those who gave them assistance.

“We pay tribute to the memory of those non-Jewish heroes who saved countless lives. Those the people of Israel call the Righteous Among the Nations … in an age of fear, they showed courage,” he said.

“I’m proud to say as vice president of the United States that the American people have been with you every step of the way since 1948. And so we will remain,” Pence said.

He said those at the ceremony were not only commemorating the Holocaust but also marking the “triumph of freedom … a people restored to their rightful place among the nations of the earth.”

Ending his remarks, Pence said in Hebrew, Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru amen.”

Britain’s Prince Charles: Hatred and Intolerance Still Lurk in the Human Heart

Representing the United Kingdom, on his first official visit to Israel, Prince Charles spoke about his grandmother, Princess Alice, who is buried on the Mount of Olives in Yerushalayim and who helped to save a Jewish family during the Holocaust.

“My grandmother, who is buried on the Mount of Olives, has a tree plated here at Yad Vashem and is counted as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, a fact that gives me and my family immense pride,” he said.

“The magnitude of the genocide that was visited upon the Jewish People defies comprehension and can make those of us who live in the shadow of those indescribable events feel hopelessly inadequate.

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R-L: British Chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Prince Charles and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a tree-planting ceremony ahead of the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in Yerushalayim, Jan. 23. (Debbie Hill/Pool via Reuters)

“The scale of the evil was so great, the impact so profound, that it threatens to obscure the countless individual human stories of tragedy, loss and suffering of which it was comprised.

“That is why,” noted the prince, “places like this and events like this are so vitally important.

“For many of you here, and for Jewish people across the globe, those stories are your stories — whether you witnessed and somehow endured the appalling barbarity of the Holocaust personally, or whether it touched your lives through the experience of your loved ones, or through the loss of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts or other family you were never able to know.

“But we must never forget that they are also our story, a story of incomprehensible inhumanity from which all humanity can and must learn. For that an evil cannot be described does not mean that it cannot be defeated. That it cannot be fully understood does not mean that it cannot be overcome.

“In the same way, it has been a singular privilege, throughout my life, to have met so many Holocaust survivors who were welcomed to the United Kingdom and who began new lives there, contributing immeasurably to the welfare of our country and the world in the years that followed.”

Charles noted the time since the Holocaust and how the generation is fading out. “Almost a lifetime has passed since the horror of the Holocaust unfolded on the European continent, and those who bore witness to it are sadly ever fewer. We must, therefore, commit ourselves to ensuring that their stories live on, to be known and understood by each successive generation.

“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.

“All too often, language is used which turns disagreement into dehumanization. Words are used as badges of shame to mark others as enemies, to brand those who are different as somehow deviant. All too often, virtue seems to be sought through verbal violence. All too often, real violence ensues, and acts of unspeakable cruelty are still perpetrated around the world against people for reasons of their religion, their race or their beliefs.

“The Holocaust was an appalling Jewish tragedy, but it was also a universal human tragedy, and one which we compound if we do not heed its lessons.

“On this day, in this place, and in memory of the millions who perished in the Shoah, let us recommit ourselves to tolerance and respect, and to ensuring that those who lived through this darkness will forever, as in the words of the prophet Isaiah, be ‘a light unto the nations’ to guide the generations that follow.”

Rabbi Lau: I Cannot Forgive

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The names of Nazi death camps in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem. (Reuters/Amir Cohen/ File)

Former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Buchenwald survivor, delivered a powerful speech on behalf of survivors and in his capacity as chairman of the Yad Vashem Council.

Rabbi Lau, who was sent with his brother to the Buchenwald concentration camp as a child, was liberated at the age of eight by American forces and went on to become the chief rabbi of Israel.

At the age of seven, he said, he had no name, only a number. “I came especially to tell you I cannot forgive,” he said, “because I am not authorized.”

He said that his parents, before they were taken away, “did not ask me to forgive. They asked me to continue the chain, so the Jewish chain will be unbroken, unbroken forever.”

Rabbi Lau added, “I can never forget.”

Rabbi Lau urged all the leaders to follow through with actions to back up their positive words and good intent.

After each of the world leaders mounted the stage to lay memorial wreaths, the day’s message and lesson was spelled out clearly.

“Never Again Is Now,” read the words on the screen. “Now Is the Time to Fight Back.”