Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Israel to commemorate the Holocaust and its victims

Some 200,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel, 70,000 of whom survived concentration camps and ghettos • Government aid to Holocaust survivors increases to $60 million for 2012 • Official ceremony begins at 8 p.m. (Israel time).

Yael Branovsky, Yori Yalon, Shlomo Cesana, Danny Brenner, Zeev Klein, Nitzi Yakov and The Associated Press Israel marks Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day beginning Wednesday at sundown, with events scheduled across the country to memorialize the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. The national day of commemoration – whose theme this year is "My Brother's Keeper: Jewish Solidarity During the Holocaust" – officially begins at 8 p.m. with the national ceremony at Warsaw Ghetto Square at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. As in years past, six survivors will light six torches at the ceremony in memory of the 6 million who were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Supreme Court President Asher Grunis will attend the ceremony, in addition to 2,500 Holocaust survivors, public figures and Israeli youth. The ceremony will be broadcast live on Israeli television and radio.

Holocaust Remembrance Day events continue Thursday as the country grinds to a halt at 10 a.m., when sirens are set to wail across Israeli cities and citizens stand at attention in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Other memorial ceremonies are scheduled at additional sites in Israel, such as the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz and Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, as well as schools, military bases, municipalities and other places of work. Throughout the day, both television and radio broadcast programs about the Holocaust.

Some 200,000 Holocaust survivors currently live in Israel, about 70,000 of whom survived concentration camps and ghettos. Many of them live in poverty and previous governments have been criticized for not doing enough to allow them to live out their lives in dignity.

However, the cabinet on Tuesday boosted its budget for assisting Holocaust survivors. The government said the basket of services for Holocaust survivors would rise to NIS 225 million ($60 million) for 2012, a 13 percent increase. An additional $13 million will be directed toward increasing monthly stipends for particularly needy survivors. Stipends currently range from $530 to $1,900 each month.

Netanyahu told the cabinet that it was urgent to help survivors, adding that as time passes fewer survivors remain alive.

"We want to remember those who perished, the 6 million brothers and sisters, and heed the lessons of the Holocaust in order to ensure the future of our people," Netanyahu said.

Deputy Minister for Senior Citizen Affairs Lea Nass said many of the remaining survivors had not even tried to claim their government benefits. She said that in recent years, government officials had "succeeded in reaching 120,000 survivors." In 50,000 cases, "we went to their homes in order to help them utilize their rights and receive the government assistance to which they are due," Nass said.

Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, attended Tuesday's cabinet meeting, which was called to review the government's assistance to survivors and its efforts to commemorate the Holocaust and to showcase examples of private collectibles that the public donated to Yad Vashem over the past year. The personal items were donated as part of the museum's program "Gathering the Fragments," a national campaign to rescue personal items from the time of the Holocaust. Since the campaign was launched this time last year, more than 51,000 items have been collected.

At the start of the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu presented one of those items – a shirt belonging to 4-year-old Rafael Denty, who was murdered at Auschwitz. "These items are being collected into a single fabric that provides tangible documentation of the disaster that befell the Jewish people," the prime minister said.

As in other years, Jewish teens from Israel and elsewhere will take part in the March of the Living trip to Poland, where they will march from Auschwitz to Birkenau on Holocaust Remembrance Day, and then travel to Israel for Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day.

The march in Poland marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of the educational journey, and this year will focus on allied soldiers who liberated the concentration camps 67 years ago. For the first time in March of the Living’s history, Israel Police Commissioner Insp. Gen. Yohanan Danino will take part in the event. He is scheduled to arrive in Krakow, Poland, on Wednesday and will officiate at the opening ceremony honoring the camps' liberators.

Danino is expected to tell them, "I stand before you, the liberators of concentration camps and the saviors of the survivors, and in the name of the state of Israel and its people, army, and police forces, I thank you and salute you."

On Thursday, Danino will lead a delegation of 200 Israel Police officers on the march. Some 10,000 people are to take part in the march on Thursday, including Holocaust survivors, Jewish youths from 48 countries around the world, Tel Aviv's Chief Rabbi Meir Lau, and hundreds of World War II veterans from different countries, who fought against the Nazis.

One of the participants from the Israel Police is Menachem Frenkel, 76, who was deported to a concentration camp from his home in Belgium when he was 4. Frenkel's father died at Auschwitz. "For me, marching in Auschwitz in an Israeli police uniform is like coming full circle," Frenkel said.

Frenkel has been volunteering with the Israel Police for 11 years. He was born in Belgium, and his family fled to France after the Nazi invasion. As his family did not have French citizenship, they had no protection against Nazi forces. "Because of the great hunger, my father had to sign us up for food stamps," Frenkel said. "It didn't take long for the Nazis to find us and send us to a concentration camp, from which my father was sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered."

Frenkel survived the war, as did his mother and sister, and they moved to Israel together. "The state has done a great deal for us and I decided I have to give something back," he said of his decision to volunteer for the police following his retirement. "I have already visited Poland since the war, but this year is different – I returned in a police uniform. I will march proudly to Auschwitz. It will be extremely powerful and emotional to arrive at the gas chambers in my uniform, knowing that my father was killed there."

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