President Reuven and First Lady Nechama Rivlin, participated in the opening ceremony of Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, held at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum on Wednesday May 4, 2016. Also speaking at the event were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and representative of the survivors of the Holocaust, Mrs. Zahava Roth.
The President began by describing the scene in Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp on the first night of Passover, 1944. “In barrack 18, a group of Jewish prisoners gathered, determined not to eat Chametz (leavened bread). Rabbi Aharon Bernard (Yisachar) Davids, the rabbi of Rotterdam and a leader in the religious Zionist movement, who decided not to escape with his family but rather was sent with his community to Bergen Belsen, explained to them that it was their obligation to do what was necessary to stay alive. In order to convince them, he picked up a piece of bread, and before eating it on that Seder night, he read a special prayer which he had penned together with Rabbi Simon Dasbergm, and other Rabbis from Holland, which read; ‘Our Father in Heaven! It is known to You that we desire to fulfill Your will and observe the Passover holiday by eating Matzah and safeguarding against Chametz. But our hearts are pained at the captivity which prevents us, and we find ourselves in danger of our lives. We are hereby ready to fulfill Your commandments “And you shall live by them (the commandments)” and not die by them, and to observe the caution of “guard yourself and watch your life greatly.” Therefore our prayer to You is that You keep us alive, and sustain us, and redeem us speedily.” The President added that tragically, Rabbi Davids had perished just months before the liberation of the camp.
“I stand here, amid the mountains of the Israeli city of Jerusalem,” said the President, “on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, between the days of Passover ‘the festival of freedom’, and Israel’s Independence Day, and give thanks in the name of Rabbi Davids and his community who did not merit to see this moment, and in the name of all our brothers and sisters, our loved ones who perished in the Holocaust, I give thanks to He who brought us to this moment, to these days of revival. Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel lives.”
He continued, “In another generation, there will not be anyone left living among us who survived that hell, and who could say, ‘I was there, I saw the horror with my own eyes’. The Holocaust survivors living among us become fewer and fewer. It is time to conduct some soul-searching before you. We must admit that we were wrong. Holocaust survivors have never received the respect they deserved. Even to the present day, the State of Israel does not take every measure it can in order to take care of the Holocaust survivors. My brothers and sisters, survivors, the heroes of Israel’s revival, I came here today on my behalf, and on behalf of the people of Israel, on behalf of the State of Israel, and I ask each one of you, before it is too late, for forgiveness. We did not understand, we did not want to understand, and we have not done enough. Our brothers and sisters, Holocaust survivors. These are the years in which we should take the opportunity to try to clarify along with you, how you want to shape the memory of the Holocaust and its lessons for future generations. How do you wish to charge the torch of remembrance, which will be passed from generation to generation? The number which was tattooed onto your flesh is etched into the hearts of this nation for generations, and has become the living will of the Jewish people.”
The President added, “The Holocaust whether we like it or not has become a factor in shaping the standards of our understanding of ourselves, of understanding our relationship with other nations, and our role in the world. The Holocaust places the Jewish people in front of the basic principles, as a people and as a nation gazing inward at ourselves and outward toward all of humanity. It is these basic principles that should unite us all, regardless of our political outlooks, ideologies, or ethnic origin.
“I believe that the memory of the Holocaust for future generations, should meet three basic principles” said the President, and continued, “Firstly, we should always be able to defend ourselves – we should not privatize our security. The State of Israel is not, under any circumstances, compensation of the Holocaust. However, the Holocaust put into perspective the necessity and crucial need of the Jewish people to return to its historical roots, as a nation that takes its fate in its hands. Anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews are not a fad, or one that can be taken lightly. It is a difficult chronic disease that penetrates deep into the heart and history of nations. We find it today in the voices that can be heard in the heart of a different Europe – from the British left and the extreme right in Eastern Europe and in Europe as a whole, and in areas across of the Arab world. The State of Israel will deal with this anti-Semitism by ensuring, first and foremost, a national home and a Jewish army that protects the nation of survival. We will never be ashamed that we are willing to fight. We are a nation that has survived and will continue to survive thanks to our resilience, and strong spirit. The second point is the shared Jewish fate. In Auschwitz and Babi Yar, in the darkness and in great fear, an alliance was forged – the Covenant of the Pieces. Our Jewishness descended upon us all equally and culminated, as Jean Amery said harshly, in the realities and the possibilities inherent in the number engraved on our arms. All of us, the Jewish people, those of faith, and those without, those who believe in Zionism and those who don’t believe in Zionism, from the East and from the West, and anywhere in the world are as one number. We will forever pursue the blood of our brothers and sisters, individuals and communities, which screams at us from within the earth. We will continue to pursue the deniers, those who want to forget and those who want to blur history. In the present and the future, whatever our faith, above and beyond any estrangement or divisions within us – we will always recognize the invisible thread that connects us to the Jewish people as one. The third point, beloved is man created in God’s image. This is a Jewish truth, the most fundamental human truth and the deepest antibody to the horrors of the Holocaust, where our people and all of us were turned to dust, to ants, to un-human beings. Beloved is man created in God’s image. Whether we want or not, the Holocaust imposes a hard and terrible duty on the Jewish nation and its conduct. The Holocaust will forever place us, the Jewish people, as eternal prosecutors on the stage of humanity, prosecutor against anti-Semitism, racism and ultra-nationalism. Prosecutors against pacts with the devil that trade human dignity and life for interests. Prosecutors against indifference, against the relativism of evil. Beloved is man, every person, created in the image of God. This is a holy duty from which the Jewish people cannot and should not want to escape at any time, under any circumstances.”
The President concluded by saying, “A year ago, on the eve of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day), I received a call from my friend, former Mossad Chief and hero and protector of Israel, Meir Dagan, may he rest in peace. Meir told me about the picture of his grandfather, Rabbi Ber Sloshny in the Lukow Ghetto in Poland. In the picture you can see Rabbi Ber, wrapped in a prayer shawl, kneeling, his hands raised and he is humiliated, just a few seconds before he was executed by firing squad. This image followed Dagan throughout his life. All orders given, he said, were given with this picture in mind. The pain of this picture of his grandfather was always with him. He was horrified even more, he told me, when he discovered that the people who killed his grandfather, those soldiers in the picture, were merely reservists. Most of them were not even members of the Nazi Party. “They were normative people,” said Meir, “voluntary mass murderers, who treated my grandfather, as if he were nothing. These were ordinary people.
“This picture will forever stay with me, with three things in mind; Rabbi Ber defenseless with his arms raised; Meir Dagan bearing the picture with him while crossing borders and risking his life for his people; and the German murderer, that ‘ordinary person’ who abandoned his humanity. Against these images I will recite to my sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters – never again. We will forever know how to protect ourselves by ourselves. We will forever be committed to a partnership of Jewish destiny. And we will forever insist – that beloved is man, created in the image of God. May the souls of our sisters and brothers the heroes, the victims of the Holocaust, be bound in the bond of life and engraved in our hearts forever.”