The Media Line is granted a behind-the-scenes tour ahead of Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem
The pace was quick on Wednesday afternoon at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, as officials put the finishing touches on months of preparations ahead of one of Israel’s largest-ever events.
In just over 12 hours, some 50 leaders from across the globe – heads of state, kings and top legislators alike – would be gathering there for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, marking 75 years since the January 27, 1945, liberation by Soviet forces of the Nazi-run Auschwitz death camp.
Beginning in 1942, an estimated 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz, the vast majority of them Jews. It was the largest of the extermination camps where the Nazis carried out the Endlösung der Judenfrage, or the so-called Final Solution.
In 2005, January 27 was chosen as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Notable invitees for Thursday’s memorial include the presidents of Germany, France and Russia; US Vice President Mike Pence; and Britain’s Prince Charles – all of whom will addresses the main ceremony taking place in Yad Vashem’s Warsaw Ghetto Square, on the Mount of Remembrance, at 13:30-16:40 local time.
Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, will be leading a nine-member congressional delegation, while the heads of the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament are also confirmed. They will be joined by high-level delegations from Canada, Australia, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Hungary and many other nations.
“I welcome the leaders from around the world who are coming here, to Jerusalem,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Tuesday afternoon as invitees began arriving.
“It is important that they remember where we came from, and it is important that they see where we have gone,” he said.
The event, titled “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Ani-Semitism,” was organized by the World Holocaust Forum Foundation in cooperation with Yad Vashem, and is being held under the patronage of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
Two hours prior to the ceremony, delegations will be ushered into two tents. Heads of state and royals will be greeted by Rivlin and Netanyahu in an intimate setting resembling a lounge, where they will be able to eat, drink and hold quick sideline meetings. All other attendees will be in a large area directly adjacent to the main hall where the ceremony will take place.
Harel Tubi, director-general of the President’s Residence – where a state dinner was held on Wednesday night – told The Media Line that officials initially anticipated attendance by 10-15 global leaders. But Simmy Allen, head of the International Media Section at Yad Vashem, insisted that his team was not surprised by the overwhelming turnout.
“It speaks to the importance of the issue for global leaders,” he told The Media Line during Wednesday’s tour, emphasizing the unique way they will proceed to the main auditorium.
“They will enter as a unit, shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s a very significant message that all these dignitaries are committed toward achieving the same goal. They will not be as individuals – they will be as one,” Allen said.
Altogether, about 800 people will be in the Warsaw Ghetto Square, where a 100-piece orchestra, directed by conductor Vladimir Spivakov, will play three sets accompanied by a 40-member choir. The ceremony will be broadcast with simultaneous translation in six languages – Hebrew, English, French, German, Spanish and Russian – and will be live-streamed via the Facebook pages of Yad Vashem and the Israel Government Press Office.
An estimated 400 members of the media will be on site and provided with access to Holocaust survivors and scholars.
According to a statement on the Yad Vashem website, the proceedings have taken on added significance due to recent developments.
“This historic event takes place against the background of the rise in hateful and violent expressions of anti-Semitism, especially in Europe,” it said.
“Given this alarming situation,” the statement continued, “efforts to educate about the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, and foster Holocaust commemoration, education and research, have made this event more crucial and relevant than ever.”
Established by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in 1953, Yad Vashem is entrusted with documenting, researching and educating about the Holocaust, during which 6 million Jews were killed.
The center also honors what it calls “Righteous Among the Nations,” courageous non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during World War II. As of today, some 27,000 have been recognized.
Yad Vashem has various museums, research and education centers, monuments and memorials. The center’s archives is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world, housing hundreds of millions of documents, photographs, audios, videos and written testimonies related to the Nazi genocide.
While efforts continue to identify each victim, Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names (Shoah being the Hebrew term for Holocaust) already includes approximately 4,800,000 people.
While there will undoubtedly be some politicking during the event, the focus remains on the central themes.
“Remembering the Holocaust and fighting anti-Semitism is something that each and every one of us should take upon himself, and these leaders that are coming here together, shoulder-to-shoulder, for this event are echoing this very important message,” Iris Rosenberg, director of Yad Vashem’s Communications Division, told The Media Line.
As with most productions of this magnitude, the planning has not been without controversy.
On the political front, Polish President Andrzej Duda declined to attend after his request to speak at Yad Vashem was rejected. Duda is currently engaged in a war-of-words with Russian President Vladimir Putin over alleged World War II revisionism, and has repeatedly expressed his belief that the global spotlight should have been focused on the commemoration at Auschwitz on Monday.
Perhaps more significant was the revelation that only a few dozen Holocaust survivors – out of some 200,000 living in Israel today – will be at Thursday’s ceremony. While sequential Israeli governments have tried to tackle the issue, critics contend that survivors remain without the basic needs required for them to live in dignity in the lone Jewish state.
Nevertheless, their ability to overcome unimaginable hardship and escape near-certain death will be highlighted Thursday, as months of intensive planning culminates at Yad Vashem in what stands to be a meaningful – and emotional – ceremony.