Israelis on Monday evening marked the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, coming together to commemorate the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, despite deep societal divisions over the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.
At the main ceremony held at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, President Isaac Herzog noted the internal tensions, urging Israelis to set them aside for the commemorations and other upcoming national holidays.
“This year is no ordinary year. And this memorial day is like no other. This year, feelings are rough and shoulders are hunched, as if to attest to the weight of the discord bearing down on us,” he said. “Let us leave these sacred days, which begin tonight and end on Independence Day, above all dispute; let us all come together, as always, in partnership, in grief, in remembrance.”
Herzog focused his remarks on a little-known, yet chilling, aspect of the Nazi project to exterminate the Jewish people, recalling the stories of two of the 86 Jews killed at the Natzweiler-Struthof camp, on French soil. Their bodies were later sent to be exhibited in a planned “museum of skulls and skeletons of an extinct race,” which Herzog described as a “museum of horrors that the Nazi beast planned.”
“A collection of limbs belonging to our brothers and sisters, whose bodies were cut open, chopped up, and shoved into test tubes and glass bottles to be displayed and catalogued in an orderly fashion,” Herzog said.
The plan, he said, “reflected how, with blood-curdling cruelty, the Nazis were also thinking about the day after. The day when no living Jew would remain anywhere on Earth. How would the ‘enlightened’ world, ‘cleansed’ of Jews, recall this extinct inferior race?
“This museum was supposed to provide an answer to this question. It was the finale of the Final Solution,” he said.
The president told the stories of Siegbert Rosenthal and Sarah Bomberg-Birenzweig, two of the Jews whose remains were meant to be featured in the museum, highlighting the decades-long effort needed to discover the names of these unique victims.
“At first, they found numbers. Then, names. Then, the names became people. With life stories. With photographs,” he said.
“Eighty-six worlds, worlds of love, joy, and dreams, reduced to dismembered limbs,” he adds. “And they did not find perfect rest. This horrifying, depraved, sick act of murder for the purpose of public display exemplifies the depravity. The depths of the most chilling abyss in human history. Hell itself.”
Turning again to the increasingly divisive discourse, Herzog strongly denounced the use of analogies to the Nazis and Holocaust in Israeli political debates.
“The Nazi abomination was an unprecedented evil, with no parallel by any metric. It was no mere malice. It was an infinity of horror. We must remember, repeat, and internalize, time and again: they — and they alone — were Nazis. That — and that alone — was the Holocaust,” he said.
“Even in the grips of ferocious disagreements about fate, about destiny, about faith, about values, we must be careful to avoid any comparisons, any equivalences with the Holocaust or with the Nazis,” he continued.
“At the high point of this sacred day, it seems that even the obvious must be stated: For the Nazi monster, opinions within our nation made not the slightest difference. None of the ideologies, beliefs, or ways of life, none of the differences or varieties within our people, bore any meaning. For them, we were all one people… whose fate was one: death and extinction.”
Herzog ended his remarks with an appeal to unity, saying Israel’s 75-year history showed “you will not defeat us.”
“For sisters and brothers, we are. Yes, brethren who know how to argue and disagree. But never haters. Never enemies. We are one people, and one people we shall remain, brought together not only by a painful history but also by our shared, hope-filled future and fate,” he said.
Speaking after Herzog, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged national unity and likened today’s Iran to Nazi Germany as the current entity threatening the Jewish people, reprising a theme from his previous speeches at Yad Vashem for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Netanyahu hailed the “unique victory of the Jewish people” in the aftermath of the Holocaust, reflected of the forming of families by survivors, their coming to Israel, and never forgetting Jerusalem as a national symbol.
“The peak of the victory is the independence of the State of Israel,” he said, adding: “Our state is prosperous, democratic, full of achievements.”
But, he added, this victory cannot overshadow the tragedies that the Jewish people — and others — endured during the Holocaust.
Netanyahu said that the calls to exterminate the Jewish people have not stopped, and today come from Iran. He stressed that past victories do not guarantee future wins, saying Israel must be able to “defend itself by itself against any enemy, any threat.”
He also warned against committing terror attacks against Israelis, saying Israel will take all necessary action against its enemies.
What Israel needs, the premier said, is “spirit, power and internal unity,” citing Leo Dee, who recently lost his wife Lucy and daughters Rina and Maia in a Palestinian terror attack. Netanyahu hailed the fact that “at his lowest point,” Dee voiced pleas for national unity and called out: “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Commemorations for Holocaust Remembrance Day were also held elsewhere around the country. At an event at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai in the south, opposition leader Yair Lapid recalled how his grandfather in Hungary was taken to a Nazi death camp in 1944.
“Why didn’t they fight?” he said of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. “The only possible answer is that because they were good people, they did not believe in the existence of evil.”
According to Lapid, the lessons of the Holocaust presented Israel with a “dual challenge” — ensuring the survival of Jews “at any price” while remaining moral when faced with enemies who “do not see us as being really human.”
“We are Jews and that’s sufficient reason to murder us,” he said. “Our moral test is to continue — even under these conditions — to differentiate between enemies and innocents.
“[We must] kill our enemies without hesitation, but not burn homes or wipe out villages because Jews don’t carry out pogroms,” he added, in an apparent swipe at Jewish extremists who rampaged in the Palestinian town of Huwara after a recent deadly terror attack, as well as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich who called to “wipe out” the town.
“Today, Yom HaShoah, is the day in which we remember that we must do everything to prevent suffering and the deaths of innocents. It is also the day in which we tell the world: We won’t again board the train. We will defend ourselves against evil.”
Elsewhere, MK Boaz Bismuth of Netanyahu’s Likud party was forced to leave a ceremony at a synagogue in Tel Aviv after participants heckle him.
In footage on social media, people could be heard shouting, “Shame,” toward Bismuth as he attempts to speak, while others demanded they stop.
Bismuth left the synagogue as the dispute between the parts of the crowd heated up and almost became a physical altercation.
אין כבוד: מפגינים נגד הרפורמה ביזו אירוע זיכרון לשואה שמתקיים בבית כנסת בת"א – כאשר ח"כ בועז ביסמוט עלה לנאום. המשתתפים המזועזעים הוציאו את הכורזים וביקשו לכבד את המעמד pic.twitter.com/byz4oFkzFE
— Moti Kastel מוטי קסטל (@KastelMoti) April 17, 2023
Holocaust Remembrance Day is one of the most solemn dates on the Israeli calendar. Survivors typically attend remembrance ceremonies, share stories with teenagers, and participate in memorial marches at former concentration camps in Europe.
Remembrance events are due to continue Tuesday when a siren will sound for two minutes at 10 a.m., which typically brings Israeli outdoor life to a standstill: Pedestrians stand in place, buses stop on busy streets, and cars pull over on major highways, their drivers standing on the roads with their heads bowed.