A two-minute-long siren sounded throughout Israel at 10 a.m. Tuesday to remember Holocaust victims and signal the start of the main daytime Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies, which are taking place in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the lives of many survivors.
The siren 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.
But this year, the streets were already mostly empty, with cafes and restaurants, typically shut down for the remembrance day, already closed. The country has been in near lockdown mode for more than a month trying to staunch the spread of a virus that has killed more than 180 and put a quarter of the country out of work.
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.
Instead, amid the virus crisis, survivors on Tuesday were mostly staying indoors, in their apartments and nursing homes.
The country’s central ceremony, which typically draws thousands to the national Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial alongside its top leadership, was prerecorded without an audience. With the adjacent museum shut down due to public gathering restrictions, commemorations and exhibits have all shifted online.
In addition to Yad Vashem, institutions from Israel’s Knesset to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) are holding online events. The USHMM is simulcasting a ceremony on Facebook and YouTube that includes remarks given by past speakers including Elie Wiesel and the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz.
The Jewish Agency is hosting a Yom Hashoah event broadcast live with testimony from Holocaust survivor Leah Hason. The agency’s English Facebook page is featuring testimony with Spanish subtitles.
The Israeli embassy in Berlin, which has plastered a #stayhome sign over its logo, is holding a ceremony in Hebrew and English, with a memorial prayer, presentations by embassy staff, and a speech by Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff. There is also a separate virtual Zikaron BaSalon session with a Holocaust survivor coordinated by Israel’s Munich consulate.
Interim Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party on Monday signed a coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud to end a yearlong political deadlock, spoke at the parliament as the siren ended, honoring former Knesset speakers Dov Shilansky and Shevah Weiss who survived the Holocaust.
Gantz also mentioned his late parents, Nahum and Malka, who were Holocaust survivors.
He delivered a message of unity, saying Israel must boost both its military might, “to make Israel the safest place for Jews and for all its citizens,” and its moral strength.
“We must safeguard the links connecting us as a society: No ‘us and them,’ no camps wishing for each other’s downfall,” he said. “That is the mission that I carry with me in politics. I have taken it upon myself to safeguard democracy, because I believe it is the source of our strength as a society.”
With the pandemic ravaging the elderly, Israel’s aging population of survivors finds itself much like they were during World War II — alone and in fear of the unknown.
Some survivors say the current isolation and sense of danger has triggered difficult memories linked with their wartime experiences. Others bristle at any comparison to their plight during World War II – when the Nazis systematically murdered 6 million Jews.
“One has nothing to do with the other. This could never compare to the five years I went through in the Holocaust,” said Dov Landau, 92, who survived Auschwitz and several other death camps, but lost his entire family. “This is a temporary disease that will pass.”
There are about 180,000 Holocaust survivors remaining in Israel, and a similar number elsewhere around the world. Israel’s first coronavirus fatality was a man who had escaped the Nazis in World War II, and at least half of the 14 residents who died in a particularly badly infected retirement home in the southern city of Beersheba were Holocaust survivors.
Aviva Blum-Wachs, 87, who survived the Nazi invasion of her native Warsaw, said the hardest part of the current pandemic was being separated from her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. But she said there was no parallel to her wartime trauma experience.
“We were closed in the ghetto. We had no food, no telephone. There was horrible fear of what was outside,” she recalled, from her Jerusalem home. “There is nothing to be afraid of now. We just have to stay home. It’s completely different.”
Yad Vashem has invited the public to take part in its annual victim name-reading ceremony by recording video at home and sharing on its social media platforms.
“Although the circumstances this year are unique, the message is still the same: We will never forget their names,” said Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev.
For the first time, the annual March of the Living, which draws youths from around the world to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in southern Poland, has also been called off, and a virtual remembrance launched instead.
“Physically we may not be there but virtually we are marching on,” said Shmuel Rosenman, the world chairman of March of the Living. “We will continue to educate the next generation.”
For the frail survivors of the actual genocide, though, these days are mostly focused on surviving the coronavirus.
“We don’t need the coronavirus to remember,” said Zohar Arnon, 92, who lost his parents and two sisters in the Holocaust. “All of us who made it here after ’45 have our baggage. We each have our reasons for having trouble sleeping at night.”