It was Vice President Mike Pence, a speaker today at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum gathering—“Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism” at Yad Vashem—who brought tears to my eyes.
“The world can only marvel at the faith and resilience of the Jewish People,” he said: Three years after the end of the Shoah, the Jewish people founded the state of Israel, having never lost faith in the promise of the Almighty that he would bring the people back to the Land that he had promised to their ancestors.
Mike Pence is a religious man, an evangelical Christian, and I know that he meant very word out of his own faith. So I cried, that he evoked God’s promise of the Land to the Jewish People before the representatives of some fifty nations, and recognized our courage and faith.
And I realized that his words evoked deep emotion in me precisely because I have so little faith in the leaders of the world to recognize what was evident to him.
The vice president said, as well, that the Holocaust showed “what happens when the powerless cry for help and the powerful refuse to answer.”
“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?’”
In another way, I found myself deeply touched by the words of the president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier: he was filled with his own anguish as he spoke, with great honesty (emphasis added):
“What a blessing, what a gift, it is for me to be able to speak to you here today at Yad Vashem,” this, after reciting the Shehecheyanu prayer.
“Here at Yad Vashem burns the Eternal Flame in remembrance of the victims the Shoah.
“This place reminds us of their suffering. The suffering of millions.
“And it reminds us of their lives – each individual life.” And here he recounted the stories of four who perished.
“Germans deported them. Germans burned numbers on their forearms. Germans tried to dehumanize them, to reduce them to numbers, to erase all memory of them in the extermination camps.
“They did not succeed.
Samuel and Rega, Ida and Vili were human beings.
“And as human beings, they live on in our memory.
“Yad Vashem gives them, as it says in the Book of Isaiah, ‘a monument and a name.’
“I, too, stand before this monument as a human being – and as a German.
“I stand before their monument. I read their names. I hear their stories.
“And I bow in deepest sorrow.
Samuel and Rega, Ida and Vili were human beings.
“And this also must be said here: The perpetrators were human beings. They were Germans. Those who murdered, those who planned and helped in the murdering, the many who silently toed the line: They were Germans.
“The industrial mass murder of six million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity, it was committed by my countrymen.
“The terrible war, which cost far more than 50 million lives, it originated from my country.
“Seventy-five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, I stand before you all as president of Germany – I stand here laden with the heavy, historical burden of guilt. Yet at the same time, my heart is filled with gratitude…
“My soul is moved by the spirit of reconciliation, this spirit which opened up a new and peaceful path for Germany and Israel, for Germany, Europe and the countries of the world…
The Eternal Flame at Yad Vashem does not go out. Germany’s responsibility does not expire. We want to live up to our responsibility. By this, you should measure us.
“I stand before you, grateful for this miracle of reconciliation, and I wish I could say that our remembrance has made us immune to evil…
“The spirits of evil are emerging in a new guise…
“I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history once and for all.
“But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading.
“I cannot say that when Jewish children are spat on in the schoolyard, I cannot say that when crude antisemitism is cloaked in supposed criticism of Israeli policy…
“Of course, our age is a different age.
“The words are not the same.
“The perpetrators are not the same.
“But it is the same evil.”
The speech given by Dr. Moshe Kantor, President of the World Jewish Congress and the World Holocaust Forum was deeply sobering and highly instructive (emphasis added).
He began by citing Napoleon Bonaparte, who, when granting equal rights to the Jews of France, said “the national attitude towards Jews is the barometer of society’s civilization.”
This is because “for all those who wanted to dismantle the fabric of society, extremists from both right and left, the Jews were a symbol of society’s foundations.
“Rejection of the Jews was a rejection of the world order. They were always the first target, but by no means the last.”
Who could have imagined, said Kantor, that 75 years after the Holocaust the situation for Jews in Europe would be so bad:
“More than 80% of them feel unsafe in Europe today, while more than 40% are considering leaving Europe entirely and in recent years 3% have done so annually.
“If we think about this figure for a moment, it means that at this rate in only 30 years there could be no Jews in Europe.
“What must be done?
“Firstly, we must educate – about the Holocaust and about the dangers of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia, and particularly from an early age.
“Secondly, we must introduce meaningful legislation and thirdly fully enforce it.”
Then there was the marvelous Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. He was a survivor of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp at the age of seven. He could not forget, he said, the horrors that he saw and experienced.
And he does not forgive – he was not empowered to do so. The last time he saw his mother, she didn’t tell him to forgive, she told him to carry on. He came from 27 generations of rabbis, she said, and he must be the 28th. And there you have our strength.
I have saved for last, here, the speaker who was first on the agenda: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who speaks for the Jewish People and specifically for us here in Israel. (Emphasis added)
“Auschwitz and Jerusalem: An abyss – and a peak…Auschwitz – death. Jerusalem – life.
“Seventy-five years ago, our people – the Jewish People – emerged from the largest killing field in the history of humanity. The survivors do not forget anything: The helplessness, the endless suffering, the flames and the smoke, the bereavement and the loss…
But especially today, it must be said: For the six million of our people, including 1.5 million children, the gates of hell were broken into too late. Too late.
“And therefore, at the foundation of the revival of the State of Israel is one main imperative: There will never be a second Holocaust. As the Prime Minister of Israel, this is my supreme obligation…
“Israel is eternally grateful to the immense sacrifice that was made by the allies, by the peoples and the soldiers, to defeat the Nazis…
“Yet we also remember that some 80 years ago, when the Jewish people faced annihilation, the world largely turned its back on us, leaving us to the most bitter of fates.
“For many, Auschwitz is the ultimate symbol of evil. It is certainly that.
“But for the Jewish people, Auschwitz is more than the ultimate symbol of evil.
“It is also the ultimate symbol of Jewish powerlessness. It is the culmination of what can happen when our people have no voice, no land, no shield…
“Today, our voice is heard…in countless capitals around the world…
“Today, we have a land – our ancient homeland…
“And today, we have a shield. And what a shield it is…
“The Jewish people have learned the lessons of the Holocaust: to take, always to take seriously the threats of those who seek our destruction; to confront threats when they are small; and above all, even though we deeply, deeply appreciate the great support of our friends, to always have the power to defend ourselves by ourselves. We have learned that Israel must always remain the master of its fate.
The prime minister also raised the issue of Iran, as we might have expected:
“I am concerned. I am concerned that we have yet to see a unified and resolute stance against the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet – a regime that openly seeks to develop nuclear weapons and annihilate the one and only Jewish state.”
His concern touches the heart of the matter: What do words mean if action does not follow? We have yet to see what concrete results there are, if any, in the wake of this impressive forum.
President of France Emmanuel Macron was one of the speakers today. But before the event at Yad Vashem, he took himself to Ramallah to meet with Mahmud Abbas, who incites his people to attack Jews in Israel. And so what are Macron’s words worth?
One of the speakers today made the point that the Holocaust was a traumatic lesson for the world: it forced people to understand that modernity does not signal morality.
The nations of the world are obligated to advance the morality today with regard to anti-Semitism. Failure to do so would not simply be an indication that the Jewish People are being failed again: it would be an abandonment of Western culture more broadly.
There is much more – a speech by Putin and other political events connected to him; as well as a surprisingly good speech by Britain’s Prince Charles – that I will not touch upon here.
Last night President Ruby Rivlin hosted a gala dinner for the attendees who had already arrived. Rivlin merits special note for his role in planning the entire forum event. He spent much of the day yesterday meeting individually with attendees.
What I will return to depends in part on what else requires focus. It appears that President Trump is about to unveil his “peace plan.” Prime Minister Netanyahu and Blue & White head Gantz have been invited to Washington next week.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.