President Shimon Peres warned of the dangers of Europe’s extreme Right, during a state ceremony marking the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Jerusalem yesterday.
Addressing a crowd of thousands at Yad Vashem, Peres marked the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry and noted that anti-Semitism is again on the rise in the former Soviet republic.
“The president of Hungary will take part tomorrow in the March of the Living in Poland, a gesture deserving of admiration,” Peres said. “However, we must not ignore any occurrence of anti-Semitism, any desecration of a synagogue, any tombstone smashed in a cemetery in which our families are buried.
We must not ignore the rise of extreme right-wing parties with neo-Nazi tendencies, which are a danger to each of us and a threat to every nation.”
Peres was specifically referring to the fringe Jobbik party’s rise to become Hungary’s third-largest parliamentary faction.
Termed a neo-Nazi party by the World Jewish Congress and the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), Jobbik won 20 percent of the seats in the Hungarian legislature during elections earlier this month.
The Mazsihisz and several other organizations are currently boycotting all official government Holocaust commemorations, in protest of what they believe is the ruling administration’s “relativization” of Hungary’s role in their community’s destruction.
In comments earlier on Sunday, European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor warned that if parties like Jobbik continue to make gains throughout the continent, the future of European Jewry will be in doubt.
In his speech, Peres said: “The State of Israel of today is not only the only possible memorial standing for our perished brothers and sisters. Israel is a deterrence against any attempt at another Holocaust. A strong Israel is our response to the horrors of anti-Semitism, but it does not excuse the rest of the world from its responsibility to prevent this disease from returning to their own homes.”
Peres also lightly touched on Israel’s relations with its neighbors in the wake of the breakdown in talks with the Palestinian Authority, saying: “We are strong enough to repel dangers.
We should not be scared of threats, and we must not give up on peace.
“As a member of the Jewish people I may not and I cannot forget the horrors of the Holocaust.
As a citizen of Israel I will do everything in my power to ensure that the Nazis will not rise again. As a human being I will do everything in my power to bring peace between peoples; between races; between religions; between nations.”
Peres recounted the murder of Budapest’s Jews at the banks of the Danube, which was “painted red” with the blood of Jewish men, women and children.
“Children were tied to their mothers, the young to the elderly. The bodies of the victims are pushed into the chilling, foaming waters of the Danube.
Their cries rise to the heavens and are left without an echo. The perpetrators stand with smiles on their faces, as if they carried out an act of heroism and won a brave battle,” he said.
Peres also recalled the destruction of his hometown of Vishneva.
“In Vishneva the Nazis used a different technique. They didn’t shoot the Jews; they burnt them alive. The Nazis, Germans and locals gathered up all the Jews left in Vishneva (half had already emigrated to Israel) and forced them to march to the synagogue which was made of wood,” he said. “My grandfather, wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl, stood at the head of the march, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, may peace be upon his soul.
The same prayer shawl that I huddled under every Yom Kippur to listen to him recite the Kol Nidre prayer in his beautiful voice. They locked the doors of the synagogue and set it on fire with all the Jews still inside. No one survived. Nothing was left of the synagogue. I can still hear the Kol Nidre prayer, which my grandfather would recite, in my heart.”
Returning to Vishneva as foreign minister years later, Peres remarked on how the train station from which he left to come to Israel as a child was also the “station that took my people to the death camps.”
“What happened to them could have happened to me. It could have happened to many of us here tonight,” he said.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau read psalms for the dead while Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef recited kaddish for the martyrs and IDF chief cantor Lt.-Col. Shai Abramson sang the El Malei Rahamim prayer.
Former chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, himself a survivor and the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, lit a memorial torch, while six survivors – Asher Aud, Zvi Michaeli, Dita Kraus, Chayim Herzl, Hinda Tasman and Itzchak Biran – lit torches, each of which represented one million victims.
Videos of the survivors recalling their stories and detailing their lives after making aliya were shown prior to the kindling of the torches.
The theme of this year’s ceremony was life on the edge, expressing the situation in which European Jewry found itself in 1944.
According to Yad Vashem, that was the “year in which everything depended on the scales of time, and the Jews remaining in Europe were asking themselves: Will the Red Army from the east and the Allies from the west arrive before the Germans come to murder whoever is still alive?” While Yad Vashem is usually reluctant to weigh in on political matters, the Holocaust museum issued a statement on Sunday in response to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s statement calling the Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era.”
“Holocaust denial and revisionism are sadly prevalent in the Arab world, including among Palestinians,” and thus such a statement “might signal a change, and we expect it will be reflected in PA websites, curricula and discourse,” the museum said in a statement.
On Sunday evening the Government Press Office emailed journalists a list of instances of Holocaust denial by the Hamas terror organization, with which the PA has announced it will sign a reconciliation agreement.