Israeli President Shimon Peres arrives at the Yom HaShoah ceremonies on Monday at Yad Vashem.
(Jerusalem, Israel) — Today, I attended more of the Holocaust ceremonies at Yad Vashem.
At precisely 10am, sirens rang for several minutes all over Israel and all of us at the event — and all Israelis throughout the country — stood silently for several haunting minutes to remember the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.
During the ceremonies, Israeli officials, IDF officers, Jewish leaders, Holocaust survivors, foreign diplomats, and Christian leaders laid wreaths to honor the memory of the dead. An IDF honor guard stood watch. I was surprised but honored to be given a seat in the third row, not far from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, IDF chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and Natan Sharansky, head of The Jewish Agency. It was a remarkable place to see the event up-close-and-personal, and to be praying for Israel’s leaders, that they would be like sons of Issachar, “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” (I Chronicles 12:32)
Here’s a picture of Israeli President Shimon Peres arriving at the event. What a remarkable life. He is 90 today. He was 20 — the age my oldest son, Caleb, is now — when his family was burned to death by the Nazis in a wooden synagogue in Belarus, not far from Minsk, as the Holocaust began. (Minsk is where my father’s family escaped in 1907.) Peres has seen the entire span of modern Israeli history, from the Holocaust to the prophetic re-creation of the State, to all the challenges up and to the present, and been a key player at almost every step along the way.
Peres will step down as President this summer. I had the opportunity to meet him in 2005 and interview him briefly, providing material I used in the book, Epicenter. I wasn’t able to talk with him this morning, but I did want to share with you the text of the extraordinary speech he delivered here at Yad Vashem on Sunday evening. Along with the Prime Minister’s speech, I encourage you to read Mr. Peres’ address in its entirely.
The English text of President Shimon Peres’ address:
My brothers and sisters, at this very moment I see before my eyes a heartbreaking image.
Tens of thousands of people; young and old, male and female, all concentrated on the banks of the Danube River. They are all under orders to face the river, each one tied to the next. Behind them stand Nazi storm troopers, Germans and locals, who cut them down with bullets to the back. To save bullets they tied weights and stones to them so that the dead will drag the living down with them. 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 an act of heroism and won a brave battle. The blue Danube is painted red, in a single moment it became a floating grave, innocent victims, innocent people. Itamar Yaoz-Kest, a Jewish poet born in Hungary and sent to Bergen-Belsen, screams in one of his poems, “What is there to drink? They tell me people. Water with blood?”
It happened in Hungary.
But then another image comes to my mind.
A photo of the town where I was born and spent the first decade of my life. 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. 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. I visited Vishneva when I was Foreign Minister of Israel and I was accompanied by the Foreign Minister of Belarus, a delegation of senior government officials, and a honor motorcade. On the way to Vishneva we passed the train station at Bogdanov. The station still operates but during the war years the rails were heaving with carriages packed with Jews on the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I imagined hearing the trains. The contradiction between the noise of the motorcade and the screams of help from the trains was ghastly. This station, from which we travelled to Israel, is 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.
“Saved” wrote Wislawa Szymborska, “because you were first, saved because you were last, because to the left, to the right, because it rained, because a shadow fell.” Everything was by chance.
The murdered live in our hearts. Each of us carries in our hearts the grief of his brothers and sisters who perished, like we carry the genius of the creation of Israel. Israel is a monument of grief for their deaths, a monument of genius for their memory, in our homeland.
The question still reverberates in our head, which has no answer and which I doubt will ever be answered, “Where were these murderers born? Where were they educated? How did the landscape of cultured Europe transform into a harsh jungle in which wild beasts walked? We know the geographical answer; the human answer does not exist.
This year is seventy years since the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. The Nazis invaded on March 19th 1944, a year before the end of the Second World War, and four years before the creation of the State of Israel. They almost immediately set about destroying the Jews. They did it with brutal efficiency. Within a month all the Jews were labeled with yellow stars and concentrated in the ghettos. No-one allowed in, no-one allowed out. The hunger and epidemics preceded the bullets and the gas. Within another month all the rest were sent to the death camps. To Auschwitz-Birkenau. Close to half a million Jews were murdered for no reason. We won’t forget the Hungarian Righteous Among the Gentiles, who risked their lives to save Jewish lives. They are few in number but they carried with courage the image of humanity. The President of Hungary will take part tomorrow in the March of the Living in Poland, a gesture worth of admiration. However, we must not ignore any occurrence of anti-Semitism, any desecration of a synagogue, any tomb stone 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 who are a danger to each of us and a threat to every nation.
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. Allow me to say, based on 90 years of experience, that without a state of our own we would continue to live on our weakness rather than, as we do today, live on our historic and contemporary abilities. The State of Israel is not a passing event; it is based upon 4000 years of life. The history of the Jewish people contains no lack of anguish but it is filled with hope – the eternity of Israel will not lie. Israel seeks peace. Between people and between nations. Peace with nations near and far. We pursue peace because we pursue justice for all regardless of origin, regardless of faith. The right to peace is the right to life. I say with confidence – 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.
We lost the best of our parents and the best of our children. But our faith that victories are temporary and values are eternal never erred. We will forever be a people who believe in values of man and values of heaven. In the name of the six million, among them one and a half million children, we will carry the torch of Jewish independence. The torch of freedom. The light of man. The belief that we will know an enlightened world in which every person treats the other as a fellow human being. And in which we are all born in the image of the Lord. May their memories be blessed.