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Holocaust Remembrance Day events open under shadow of coronavirus outbreak

Main ceremony at Yad Vashem national memorial site prerecorded and held in front of empty venue; President Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu and survivors deliver messages by video

Screen capture from video of the Holocaust Remembrance Day Opening Ceremony at the Yad Vashem national Holocaust memorial, Jerusalem, April 20, 2020. (YouTube)
Screen capture from video of the Holocaust Remembrance Day Opening Ceremony at the Yad Vashem national Holocaust memorial, Jerusalem, April 20, 2020. (YouTube)

Israel on Monday evening began commemorations for Holocaust Remembrance Day, though in significantly reduced capacity, with official ceremonies and events held largely on television and online due to the coronavirus outbreak and strict social distancing orders against public gatherings.

The main ceremony at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, was prerecorded and held in front of an empty Warsaw Ghetto Square, which normally is filled with dignitaries and other guests for the event. Only the master of ceremonies and artists who performed songs were present, while speakers sent video messages.

The event was broadcast live on national television and later posted by Yad Vashem online.

Despite the pandemic overshadowing this year’s commemorations marking 75 years since the end of the Holocaust, President Reuven Rivlin said it was incumbent upon Israelis to remember the Nazi genocide of some 6 million Jews in World War II.

“The Nazi beast conquered bodies, but not spirits. In the paths of tears, in the valleys of hell, in a disintegrating world devoid of solidarity, when death was among them every day, our brothers and sisters put their lives at risk to save the weakest among them,” he said in his speech delivered in a video projected on a large screen.

“They proved time and against that… even at the lowest point, one can and must choose to be human, to hold the most fundamental Jewish value of life, of mutual responsibility… And so they were the angels in the heart of hell,” he added.

Recalling the World Holocaust Forum, a gathering of world leaders in January at Yad Vashem, Rivlin stressed the need to remember the Holocaust.

“We recognized a simple truth, that we must stand together, global leaders and citizens of the world, against racism, anti-Semitism and fascism, defending democracy and democratic values,” he said.

Rivlin also warned against rising anti-Semitism, whose malignant spread he compared to that of COVID-19.

Speaking after Rivlin, and also via video, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel embraces its Holocaust survivors, but could not do so this year in person.

While noting that some consider the coronavirus to be the toughest global challenge since World War II, Netanyahu said it came nowhere close to the Holocaust.

“In this period there are many challenges, but from every perspective, they can’t compare and are not equal to the systematic, diabolical extermination of 6 million,” he said.

He also said the Holocaust showed the need for a Jewish state, and as in his past speeches for the event, warned against the “threat of destruction by radical Islam being led by Iran.”

Each year, during the ceremony, six torches are lit by Holocaust survivors. In keeping with limitations imposed by the coronavirus outbreak, this year’s torch lighters were filmed ahead of the event and their testimonies projected on the screen during the ceremony rather than them actually participating in person.

Torches were lit by Zohar Arnon, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, Aviva Blum-Wachs, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Haim Arbiv a survivor from Libya, Lea Miriam Reuveni a survivor from Czechoslovakia, Avraham Carmi, a survivor from Czechoslovakia and Yehuda Beilis, a survivor from Lithuania.

The videos included photos of the survivors’ extended families that they raised after the Holocaust.

Blum-Wachs is an abstract artist. “I don’t paint to remember,” she said. “I paint to forget.”

Beilis, a teenager during the Holocaust who helped save 22 other children, said his entire family was murdered. “I dream about them very often,” he said. “But I immigrated to Israel, thank God I raised a family, I have two daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I have a state and I don’t have to be afraid.”

Due to the lack of in-person survivor testimonies this year, Yad Vashem directed Israelis to look through its digital resources on the Holocaust and many Israelis attended videoconference testimonies later in the evening.

Holocaust survivors have been among the 177 fatalities of the virus in Israel, including Aryeh Even, the country’s first death from the pandemic, and Eliezer Grynfeld, 96, who greeted Pope Francis at Yad Vashem in 2014.

The commemorations will continue Tuesday, when at 10 a.m. a siren will sound throughout the country in memory of the Jews murdered by the Nazis.

Confined to their homes, many Israelis were expected to stand on their balconies during the siren, which traditionally brings the entire country to a standstill.

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