'We say never again, but it happened again -- at home'

Holocaust traumas, modern failings echo at rallies for hostages, against government

As world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, stories of survivors and rescuers take center stage at weekly gathering; six arrested as anti-Netanyahu protesters attempt to block roads

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Joseph Avi Yair Engel, right, whose parents were Holocaust survivors and whose grandson was released from captivity in Gaza, speaks at rally calling for the release of the remaining hostages, in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Joseph Avi Yair Engel, right, whose parents were Holocaust survivors and whose grandson was released from captivity in Gaza, speaks at rally calling for the release of the remaining hostages, in Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The voices of Holocaust survivors and rescuers took center stage at a weekly rally in Tel Aviv Saturday calling for the return of hostages who were abducted from Israel to Gaza on October 7.

The rally, the 16th weekly gathering in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for the return of the 136 hostages, fell on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and was tinged with references linking the slaughter of Jews by Nazi Germany 80 years ago and the massacre in southern Israel, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

Participants have sought to keep a spotlight on the plight of the hostages and heap pressure on the government to reach a deal to free them.

Israel’s failure to find a way to bring home its kidnapped citizens after over 110 days in captivity was also a major theme of anti-government protests in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and elsewhere, with thousands calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet.

The lineup and theme of the rally on Hostages Square in front of the museum highlighted how the October 7 massacres, in which Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted more than 250 others, have stirred up Holocaust traumas that occupy the psyches of many Israelis and Jews around the world.

“In Europe, there was a nation that wanted to annihilate all Jews. On October 7, there was an organization determined to do that,” said Joseph Avi Yair Engel, whose grandson Ofir was released from Hamas captivity in December. Both in Europe and in the early hours of October 7, “there was no Jewish army or state to defend victims,” he said, while stopping short of equating the Holocaust with the October 7 massacre.

The world stayed silent during the Holocaust, said Engel, whose parents were Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. Today, the outcry over slain Palestinian children “echoes all the way to The Hague with no attempt to understand what happened on October 7.”

British jurist Malcolm Shaw, right, looks on during a hearing at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, Netherlands on January 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

Israel is on trial at the International Court of Justice in the Hague for genocide, an allegation that Israel and several of its allies reject outright.

On Friday, the court ruled there was “plausibility” to South Africa’s claims that Palestinians require protection from genocide, and ordered Israel to “take all measures within its power” to prevent genocide, but did not order an immediate halt to the fighting.

Some 25,000 people have died in Gaza following Israel’s ground maneuver against Hamas there, according to unverified statistics provided by health authorities in Gaza, which Hamas has run since 2007. The figures do not differentiate between civilians and fighters and include those killed by rockets misfired by Palestinian terror groups. Israel says it has killed some 10,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza. Over 200 IDF soldiers have been killed in the fighting.

Engel noted that the Israel Defense Forces did eventually defend the nation and “is fighting bravely.”

A plea to Gazans

A Lithuanian woman named Iga Sofiaja Bonkiene recounted in a filmed message shown on a giant screen at the rally how her family had rescued dozens of Jews in Lithuania, risking execution by the Nazis or their many collaborators, and called on Gazans to do the same.

“Help release the abducted,” she said. “I know it’s hard against Hamas but just as we helped people against the Nazis, you, too, can help and save the kidnapped with information.”

Janina Rosciszewska, who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, delivers a filmed message displayed at on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (The Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

Janina Rosciszewska, a 92-year-old Polish woman who risked her life along with her parents and brother to save Jews during the Holocaust, said in a filmed message to the rally that the hostages, “Have done nothing, they are no more to blame that they were born Jewish than I am for being born Polish.”

Rosciszewska, whom Israel recognized in 1990 as Righteous Among the Nations – the Jewish state’s title for non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews from the Holocaust – helped her family hide the Bierzyński family in Dolina Będkowska near Krakow.

People attend a rally calling for the release of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza on Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Yehudit Lefner, a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor, sent her son Avishai to speak in her stead at the rally. “I am asking Hamas to bring back all the hostages now, when I’m still alive,” she wrote in a letter that he read out for her. Lefner canceled her appearance because it was too taxing, according to Sivan Cohen Sabag, the co-founder of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, which organizes the weekly rallies.

As in previous rallies, multiple speakers urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make far-reaching concessions to retrieve the hostages, language widely understood to mean agreeing to the terror group’s stated precondition of a ceasefire for negotiating a prisoner swap. More than 100 hostages were released in a weeklong ceasefire that ended in December, but 136 are believed to remain in captivity.

Protesters picket outside the private residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Caesarea on January 27, 2024. (Moked Caesarea/Benny Meshi)

At a smaller rally near Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesaria, Ali Ziyadne, whose brother Youssef and nephew Hamza were abducted from Kibbutz Holit, began his address with a prayer from the Quran, wishing for relief from duress. “Take command and secure everyone’s release,” he said, addressing Netanyahu.

Though ostensibly apolitical, there were multiple banners calling for Netanyahu’s resignation and ouster.

At a press conference Saturday night, Netanyahu said that the protests on behalf of the hostages and the ones at the Kerem Shalom border crossing against the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza “only raise” Hamas’s demands and “push off the goal that we all want: the return of all of our hostages.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up an Arabic copy of Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ found in Gaza during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2024 (Tomer Appelbaum/POOL)

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum in a statement condemned Netanyahu’s “reprimands of hostages’ families,” as they characterized it, noting that the family of Ron Arad had also been asked to keep quiet. The airman, who was captured in 1986, was never returned and his fate remains a mystery.

Anti-government protests

Thousands of people attended overt anti-government protests in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Pardes Hanna, Rehovot and elsewhere, calling for Netanyahu and his cabinet to resign or be replaced following the October 7 attack, which caught Israel by surprise.

In Tel Aviv, scuffles with police broke out when demonstrators attempted to block Kaplan Street, a major thoroughfare near the Defense Ministry headquarters. Police said six people were arrested. A protest rally was held at the Glilot police station in Herzliya where police were thought to hold the detainees from the Tel Aviv protest.

Israeli police detain a man during a demonstration calling for new election in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In Jerusalem, several hundred people rallied to call for elections outside the President’s Residence, in a protest about twice the size of last week’s event.

They were then joined by hundreds more as they marched to Paris Square to join a weekly gathering calling for the release of the hostages. A few dozen protesters briefly blocked the road junction.

Protesters in Jerusalem on January 27, 2024. (Times of Israel)

Noam Dan, a lecturer and educator from Jerusalem and a relative of Gaza hostage Ofer Kalderon, was among those who spoke at an anti-government rally at Habima Square in Tel Aviv. “There is no time for the women who are being raped and men who are being raped, in body and soul. Their time is up. The polite struggle is over. Netanyahu — your time is up,” said Dan, a longtime Netanyahu critic and anti-government activist.

Shirel Hogeg, whose family survived the Hamas attacks on Kfar Aza, told the rally: “The failed government continues as though nothing happened.”

At the main rally for the hostages’ release, Yaela David, sister of Evyatar, whom Hamas terrorists abducted at the Nova music festival, spoke of how the events of October 7 undermined her sense of basic safety in a country that many see as guaranteeing — for Jews at least — the post-Holocaust vow of “never again.”

Yaela David speaks at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (The Hostages and Missing Families Forum)

“I can no longer sing that line in the national anthem about being ‘a free nation in our land’, because October 7 proves otherwise,” she said. Each year, she noted, “we repeat the phrase ‘never again,’ that we won’t let that happen to us again. But it happened 113 days ago, this time in our home, in what we’re told is the safest place for Jews.”

The only way to restore a feeling of safety is to retrieve all the hostages “right now,” she said.

The audience responded with the repetitive chants that have punctuated the speeches at the weekly protest rallies, shouting repetitively: “All of them right now” into the chilly air of Tel Aviv.

Noam Lehmann contributed to this report.

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