World leaders gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and vowing to confront current manifestations of anti-Semitism.
Addressing the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem were representatives of the Allied powers that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II — the United States, Britain, Soviet Union and France.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the Holocaust “one of the most terrible chapters of human history” and said remembering it “is our shared responsibility to the past and the future.”
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Those remarks appeared aimed largely at Russia’s Cold War-era satellites, including Poland, whose President Andrzej Duda stayed away from Jerusalem after being denied the right to address the event.
Last month, Putin provoked an outcry after he made the claim that Poland had colluded with Adolf Hitler and contributed to the outbreak of World War II.
Poland, which sees Moscow as rewriting history and ignoring its own 1939 non-aggression pact with Hitler, has urged Putin “not to use the memory of the victims of the Holocaust for political games.”
In his speech, Putin said the Soviet Union “paid the highest price, more than any other. Twenty-seven million Russians were killed. That is the price of victory.”
He claimed 40 percent of Jewish Holocaust victims were Soviet citizens, a figure contested by historians. He said the Red Army, which liberated many of the Nazi death camps, had “put an end to these crimes.”
Of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, historians say about one million were Soviet. Putin’s controversial figure appears to include an additional 1.5 million Jewish victims from Eastern European areas occupied by the Soviets under their prewar pact with the Nazis.
“We need to find the courage not just to speak about anti-Semitism but also to do everything in our power to protect Jews,” he said.
Speaking after Putin was US Vice President Mike Pence.
“Today, we pause to remember what President Donald Trump rightly called ‘the dark stain on human history,'” he said. “Today we remember what happens when the powerless cry for help and the powerful refuse to answer.”
Pence recalled his visit last year to Auschwitz, where over a million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
“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.
The gathering in Jerusalem 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.
Pence called for the world to unite against growing anti-Semitism around the globe, singling out Iran.
“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.”
He also hailed Israel as a testament to “the faith and resilience of the Jewish people,” noting its founding came after the Holocaust.
“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.
The US vice president said those at Thursday’s 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, “May he who makes peace in heavens make peace among Israel as well.”
French President Emmanuel Macron praised world leaders for coming together to remember the Holocaust.
“Can one have even imagined this happening nowadays? For us to be so united in remembrance?” he said in his speech. “This is not just history that one can read this way or another. No, there is truth and history with evidence. Let us not be confused between these things.”
The French leader said: “After all that has passed, anti-Semitism and the scourge of anti-Semitism has returned, and with it, xenophobia and intolerance have also raised their ugly heads.”
In the face of modern anti-Semitism, he said, “We will not allow ourselves to stand by in silence because we promise to remember and to take steps. Remember, never forget.”
Prince Charles, speaking on behalf of the United Kingdom, noted how his grandmother helped save a Jewish family during the Holocaust.
“My grandmother, who is buried on the Mount of Olives, has a tree planted 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.
He called for those gathered to “recommit ourselves to tolerance and respect.”
“Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, tell new lies and seek new victims. All too often language is used to mark others as enemies, to brand those who are different as somehow deviant,” he said.
The prince also warned that efforts “to create mutual understanding and respect” were not enough.
“We must tend the earth of our societies so that the seeds of tolerance can take root. And we must remember that every human being is created… in the image of God,” he said.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that Germany must remain committed to fighting anti-Semitism in any form.
“The industrial mass murder of six million Jews, the worst crime in humanity, was committed by my country. The terrible war which cost over 50 million lives originated in my country,” he said. “Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, I stand here as the president of Germany, laden with guilt.”
Steinmeier expressed concern over continued anti-Semitism, noting an attack in October on a synagogue in the German city of Halle.
“I wish I could say that we Germans have learnt from history once and for all, but I cannot say that when hatred is spreading, I cannot say that when anti-Semitism is hidden in criticism of Israeli policy, and I cannot say that when only a thick wooden door prevents a right-wing terrorist from carrying out a massacre on Yom Kippur,” he said.
Steinmeier added: “It is the same evil, and there remains only one answer: Never again. That is why there can never be an end to remembrance.”
Earlier, president of the World Holocaust Forum and the European Jewish Congress Moshe Kantor told the almost 50 world leaders assembled that the situation for Jewish communitieswais extremely precarious.
“According to surveys, more than 80 percent of Jews say they feel unsafe in Europe today… more than 40% said they have considered leaving the continent,” Kantor said during his address.
“In recent years, around 3% of Jews have emigrated from Europe annually because of anti-Semitism, meaning that in only 30 years, if the current trends persist or worsen, there could be no Jews left in Europe by 2050.”
“I am delighted that you have gathered here today to stand side by side with the Jewish people,” Kantor told world leaders. “It sends a powerful message that anti-Semitism is unacceptable and a danger to all of our societies.
“It gives the Jewish people around the world hope that extremism can be countered with the values of tolerance, decency and moderation.”
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.