Sirens blare as Israel comes to a standstill in remembrance of Holocaust victims

Israel came to a standstill at 10 a.m. on Thursday as sirens wailed throughout the country in memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

The annual Holocaust Remembrance Day is one of the most solemn days on Israel’s national calendar, with much of the country all but shutting down for those two minutes to honor those who suffered under the Nazi killing machine.

The siren halted Israeli outdoor life — pedestrians stood in place, buses stopped on busy streets and cars pulled over on major highways, their drivers standing on the roads with their heads bowed.

It also heralded the start of the main daytime ceremonies for the somber day that began the night before with an official opening event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

People visit the ‘Chamber of the Holocaust’ in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 7, 2021 (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Ceremonies are also held in schools, public institutions, and army bases. At 11 a.m. the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” ceremony will begin at the Knesset, an official annual event during which lawmakers read out the names of Holocaust victims.

This year’s Yom Hashoah events are being held under the title “Until the Very Last Jew: Eighty Years Since the Onset of Mass Annihilation,” as laid down by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, marking Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, which was followed by the extermination of some one million Jews living in captured areas.

There will be more public events than last year when the Health Ministry had banned gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak, forcing ceremonies to go online.

The main opening ceremony on Wednesday night was attended by Holocaust survivors, President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other dignitaries.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks during a ceremony held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, April 7, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In his speech, Rivlin spoke of the 900 Holocaust survivors who died over the past year due to COVID-19.

“They survived the ghettoes and the death camps, the immigrant ships and the internment camps,” he said. “But the final battle of their lives was fought with them bewildered and isolated, behind masks and gloves, yearning for contact but parted from their loved ones.”

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, many survivors typically attend remembrance ceremonies, share stories with teenagers and participate in memorial marches at former concentration camps in Europe.

Israelis watch the testimony of a Holocaust survivor during a meeting as part of ‘Zikaron Basalon’ project, on the eve of the Holocaust Remembrance Day, in Moshav Kidmat Tzvi, April 7, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

But with March of the Living’s annual Holocaust commemoration in Poland canceled for a second year running due to the virus, the organization will instead hold an online symposium featuring Holocaust survivors, medical professionals and researchers discussing “medical resistance during the Holocaust, the legacy of Nazi medicine and what the Holocaust can teach us about the ethics of care.”

Highlighting the threat to survivors from the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event is paying “special tribute to the medical resistance and heroes of the Holocaust,” and will include Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, the son of Holocaust survivors, and US President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The event will be held at 3 p.m. Israel time with Rivlin, the head of the Jewish Agency Isaac Herzog, and other dignitaries in attendance.

A closing ceremony for the day will be held at the Ghetto Fighters’ House museum in Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot, a kibbutz that was established by Holocaust survivors.

Holocaust survivors attend a ceremony at the Mishan elderly homes in Tel Aviv as Israel marks annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. May 4, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Messages to mark the day came in from around the world.

The European Union mission to Israel tweeted that as part of its “Memory in the Living Room” project, EU Ambassador to Israel Emanuele Giaufret will host Holocaust survivor Bat-Sheva Dagan in an event to be broadcast live at Friday 1 p.m. on the commission’s Facebook page.

In a statement, the EU mission said: “We pay tribute to those who survived the unthinkable horrors of the Holocaust and rebuilt their lives in Israel, Europe and across the world. It is our collective duty to make sure that the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten.”

“We pledge to do everything in our power to fight attempts to deny, trivialize or distort the Holocaust,” it said, noting that the EU has tripled the budget for for Holocaust remembrance, education and research beginning 2022.

The Auschwitz Memorial museum, which is in charge of preserving the former concentration camp, tweeted: “Memory comes in many forms. Here on Twitter it is in your hands. On #YomHaShoah we kindly ask you to amplify our voice.”

Earlier in the week, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted, “Each year, the US observes Days of Remembrance to reflect upon the Holocaust. We remember that evil on a grand scale can and does happen, and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to stop it. We honor the lost by remembering and by learning.#NeverAgain #YomHashoah”

The continuing plight of Holocaust survivors was highlighted earlier this week when a survey conducted by the Holocaust Survivors’ Welfare Fund found that 51 percent of respondents said they relied on food given to them by various charities, with a third saying they were in dire need of the assistance.

Holocaust survivor Motti Liber, 88, receives care from a volunteer on the premises of the Yad Ezer L’Haver foundation, which supports survivors of the Holocaust by providing them food as well as medical and psychological assistance, in Haifa on January 24, 2021. (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

According to the poll, many Holocaust survivors say they are forced to give up essentials in order to have enough money for food. Forty-three percent of respondents said they didn’t have enough money for eyeglasses, 33% said they couldn’t afford dental care and 27% said they couldn’t pay for hearing aids.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2020, there were 179,600 people defined as Holocaust survivors living in Israel. An additional 3,000 people were recognized as survivors in 2020, while 17,000 died, including the 900 virus victims.

Nearly two-thirds of those, or 64 percent, hail from Europe, while 11% are from Iraq, 16% from Morocco, 4% from Tunisia and 2% each from Algeria and Libya.

Those from the Muslim world fled Nazi-inspired pogroms, such as the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Iraq, or Nazi-controlled or Nazi-allied territories where they faced restrictions on daily life, such as in Vichy-ruled Morocco and Tunisia.

Israeli state agencies define as survivors anyone “exposed” to the Nazi regime, including those who lived in countries conquered by Nazi Germany or were under direct Nazi influence in 1933-1945, as well as refugees who fled those areas due to the Nazis.

About 40% of the survivors had immigrated to Israel by 1951, and more than a third in the last wave of immigration in the 1990s from the former Soviet Union. Just 1.8% of the survivor population, or some 3,200 people, hails from Germany and Austria.

As women generally outlive men, they make up 60% of the survivor population. The percentage of women rises as each cohort ages.

Today’s survivors are all over 75 — World War II ended 75 years ago — and around 17% of them are over the age of 90.

Around 850 Holocaust survivors living in Israel at the end of 2020 were age 100 or more.

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