Israel Commemorates Holocaust Victims and Heroes

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - In Israel, business as usual came to a halt for two minutes Tuesday morning, as Jews paused to remember the six million victims of the Nazis during World War II.

Motorists stopped their vehicles on highways and roads, and along with pedestrians, they stood at attention as air raid sirens wailed on the annual Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day.

The commemoration began on Monday evening, with a State ceremony at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Shops, restaurants and places of entertainment were closed throughout the country and radio stations broadcast somber music.

Six Holocaust survivors lit giant torches, each one representing the memory of a million Jews who perished.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who lost family members in the Holocaust, told thousands of people who were gathered for the televised ceremony that the State of Israel was the answer to the Adolf Hitler's plot to destroy the Jews.

"The creation of the State of Israel is the victorious response to the attempts to erase the name of the people of Israel from the face of the land," Barak said.

Prof. Shevach Weiss, chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, said the day brought back "sad and terrible memories of the darkest period in the world's history... Europe became a lake of frozen Jewish blood."

During the past year, international events highlighted the tragedy of the Holocaust. The dramatic election gains of the Austrian Freedom Party, headed by Joerg Haider who had expressed sympathy for some Nazi policies alarmed the international community.

On the positive side, just two months ago, Pope John Paul II visited Yad Vashem, as part of his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land. A prayer placed by the Pontiff between the stones of the Western Wall, now housed at Yad Vashem, expressed his sorrow and asked God's forgiveness for those throughout history who had caused "these children of [God's] to suffer."

Weiss told he was sure that the visit of the Pope had influenced this year's commemoration of the Holocaust.

It increased an interest in the younger generation, Weiss said, "not only to remember but to know more about what happened."

Weiss, born in 1935, is a professor of politics and former Speaker of the Knesset. He was six years old when the Nazis occupied his native Poland.

His parents, brother and sister all survived with him by hiding in a cellar, in the forest and various places. They were "lucky," Weiss said. They were helped by two Ukrainian and one Polish families - righteous gentiles, according to the name given to non-Jews who helped the Jews during that time.

"Young people have more [deep] questions - about the pain."

The Holocaust is the "main bridge of Jewish solidarity." It unites the different factions within the Jewish people and links relations between Israel and worldwide Jewry, Weiss said.

However, despite the many academic disciplines searching for answers, Weiss said, an answer had yet to be found for what was a "unique phenomenon in world history."

"Maybe the poets have more answers ... I can't understand it."

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, there are some 230,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, or some 30 per cent of the country's over-60 population.

Anti-Semitic acts down but more spectacular in U.S. in 1999

Tel Aviv University released its annual report on worldwide trends in anti-Semitism on Monday.

The report for 1999 showed that the level of anti-Semitic incidents worldwide was similar to that of 1998 but attacks were far more spectacular in nature, especially in the U.S.

"The growing tendency toward ultra-right-wing terrorism was evident especially in the U.S., where despite a four per cent decline in incidents, the summer of 1999 witnessed some of the worst anti-Semitic attacks ever recorded," a press release from the university said.

It pointed to arson attacks on synagogues in the U.S. as well as the attack by a gunman on a Jewish kindergarten, as indicators.

Another trend the report highlighted was what it called the "intensification of anti-Jewish expressions" in the Arab world "whenever a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict seems to be at hand."

"It would be wrong were the talks about borders, territories and security arrangements to produce the neglect of a subject so important to Jewish history and to the future of the Jewish people," Avi Becker, World Jewish Congress director-general, said of anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

Speaking at a press conference at the release of the report, Becker said the topic "cannot be deferred to a later stage of normalization between ourselves and the Arabs."

The World Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League sponsor the annual report.

The current round of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in Eilat was suspended on Tuesday, to mark Holocaust remembrance day. Negotiators are also awaiting the arrival of Washington's special envoy, Dennis Ross who will participate in the talks.