They came to Jerusalem from around the world in numbers never seen before – but presidents, prime ministers and royals spoke with one voice in pledging to remember the horrors of the Nazis and the enduring lessons for today.
More than 40 world leaders and 100 survivors were part of the largest international event in Israel’s history – the fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem – ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on Monday.
“The Holocaust must never be allowed to become simply a fact of history,” said Prince Charles, who was among seven key figures given the honour of addressing the hall, on the first day of his first official visit to Israel.
“We must never cease to be appalled, nor moved by the testimony of those who lived through it. Their experience must always educate, and guide, and warn us. The lessons of the Holocaust are searingly relevant to this day. Seventy-five years after the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises, and still seek new victims.
“All too often, language is used which turns disagreement into dehumanisation. Words are used as badges of shame to mark others as enemies, to brand those who are different as somehow deviant. All too often, virtue seems to be sought through verbal violence. All too often, real violence ensues, and acts of unspeakable cruelty are still perpetrated around the world against people for reasons of their religion, their race or their beliefs.”
He also spoke of the “privilege“ of meeting survivors over the years and hailed their contribution to the UK, making particular mention of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, founder of the English Chamber Orchestra.
“On her arm she bears the number by which tyranny had sought to make her less than human. Yet, through her music, she reminds us of the greatest beauty of which we are capable.”
It was his first ever visit to Yad Vashem where his grandmother is recognised as Righteous Among the Nations – a fact he described as providing “immense pride” to his family.
The magnitude of the genocide of a third of world Jewry “defies belief” and can obscure individual stories of suffering, he said. It’s a fact that makes places like the museum and events like the Forum so important.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were among the other speakers.
President Steinmeier acknowledged during his speech that “the worst crime in the history of humanity was committed by my countrymen”. He added: “75 years later after the liberation of Auschwitz I stand before you all as president of Germany and laden with the heavy historical burden of guilt.”
Steinmeier added he wished he could say Germans have learned from history. “But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading.” There was an emotional hug between the German and Israeli presidents.
Thanking those gathered “from the bottom of my heart”, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin urged his guests to unite against hatred “as a wall for the sake of humanity”. Jews strive to remember what happened, he said, not because of a sense of supremacy but “because we understand that if we don’t history can be repeated”.
He added: “The state of Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust. It was established because it is the homeland of the Jewish people and we after a millennia of exile. Antisemitism has not changed but we have. We will always defend ourselves in our country.” Rivlin hailed countries like the UK which have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and urged those who haven’t to do so.
Israel’s head of state spoke of that legacy of Jewish resistance during the Shoah and told the survivors: “You are a miracle. I saw as a child how you came to Israel, established families, planted trees.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu point to the stark difference between the depths of the Jewish people at Auschwitz and the “life” of Jerusalem where the anniversary of its liberation was being marked. “Auschwitz is more than ultimate symbol of evil – it’s ultimate symbol of Jewish powerless. Today we have voice, a land and shield. Today our voice is heard in the White House and the Kremlin, in the United Nations, in London and countless other capitals.”
Without the sacrifice of the Allies there would be no survivors, he told the gathering. Be he added: “We also remember the world largely turned its back on us, leaving us to the bitterest of fates.”
He also struck a distinctly political tone as he stressed the importance of tackling Iran – a message echoed by American vice-president Mike Pence. Describing the Shoah as “the greasiest evil ever perpetrated by man against man”, he urged called for the world to follow the example of those who risked everything to save Jews at their worst moment.
An international philharmonic orchestra led by the Russian conductor Vladimir Spivakov performed requiems and songs of remembrance in front of video footage of victims of the Nazi death camps and testimonies of survivors.
UK-based Moshe Kantor, president of the World Holocaust Forum and head of the European Jewish Congress, warned that there could be no Jews left in Europe in three decades if current trends continue. A three-pronged approach of education, legislation and enforcement was needed to tackle antisemitism, he said, describing Britain as a “model” on this issue.
Among those in attendance was Walter Bingham, 96, who arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport as a 15-year-old in 1939 and lost his father in the Warsaw Ghetto. Bingham later served with the Royal Army Service Corps during the D Day landings.
Recalling his time on the Kindertransport he remembered arriving at Liverpool Street Station in London. “I was old enough to know what was going on but for some of the younger ones the trauma of being abandoned was terrible,” he said.
The event concluded with US Holocaust survivor, Rose Moskowitz, and chair of the central organisation of Holocaust survivors, Colette Avital, lighting a memorial torch.
World leaders then laid wreaths at the foot of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument, originally created by the Jewish sculptor Nathan Rapoport to stand amid the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto which was razed by the Nazis in 1943.
Cantor Shai Abramson recited the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer followed by the recitation of the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, by Holocaust survivor Naftali Deutsch who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and lost his father in the gas chambers. The event concluded with the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah.
Holocaust Educational Trust Chief Executive, Karen Pollock said: “For survivors and the wider community it means so much to see His Royal Highness leading the UK delegation to Yad Vashem for this distinguished gathering to reflect on the Holocaust and rising modern-day antisemitism. His presence sends a powerful message to the world – that this defining episode of our history should never be forgotten and be remembered for generations to come.”
Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said: “‘As our patron, His Royal Highness has repeatedly confirmed his commitment to Holocaust commemoration and education. We are pleased that for this milestone anniversary, marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, HRH is taking part in the World Holocaust Forum commemoration at Yad Vashem.”