Sirens have blared across Israel as the country came to a standstill in the annual Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, honouring the six million Jews murdered during World War II.
People halted early on Thursday where they were walking, and drivers stopped their cars to get out of the vehicles as people bowed their heads in memory of the victims of the Nazi genocide.
Ceremonies were planned throughout the day at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, parliament and elsewhere.
Israel was founded in 1948 as a sanctuary for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. About 165,000 survivors live in Israel, a dwindling population that is widely honoured but struggling with poverty.
‘Don’t compare’ Holocaust to other events
Ushering in Holocaust memorial day at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday called on the world to stop comparing the Holocaust to other events in history. He spoke after the presidents of both Ukraine and Russia drew parallels between their ongoing war and the genocide during World War II.
“As the years go by, there is more and more discourse in the world that compares other difficult events to the Holocaust. But no,” Bennett said.
“No event in history, cruel as it may have been, is comparable to the extermination of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators.”
Israel makes great effort to memorialise the victims of the Holocaust and make heroes of those who survived. Restaurants and places of entertainment remain closed on Holocaust memorial day, radios play sombre music and TV stations devote their programming to documentaries and other Holocaust-related material.
One third of survivors live below poverty line
For them, challenges loom. This year’s ceremony comes as Israel and much of the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, which confronted Holocaust survivors in particular with increased health risks as well as widespread loneliness and despair.
Additionally, about one third of Israel’s Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line, with many sustained by government stipends and donations, according to a group that represents survivors.
Despite their experience and widespread education programs, antisemitism rose worldwide during the pandemic, according to a report released Wednesday.
In addition to speeches by Bennett, Israeli President Isaac Herzog and others, Wednesday’s ceremony featured survivors lighting six torches – for the six million murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The speaker of Germany’s parliament, Baerbel Bas, also attended as a special guest.