Millions pay respects to Holocaust victims

Sirens sounded across Israel this morning, bringing life to a standstill as millions of Israelis observed a moment of silence to honour the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Sirens sounded across Israel this morning, bringing life to a standstill as millions of Israelis observed a moment of silence to honour the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

The two-minute siren at 10am (8am Irish time) is an annual tradition marking Israel's Holocaust remembrance day, which began yesterday evening and ends at sundown today.

Pedestrians stopped in their tracks, buses stopped on busy streets, and cars on major highways pulled over as the country paused to pay respect to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis.

All day, television stations devoted their broadcasts to historical documentaries and movies, and radio stations played sombre music and interviews with survivors. Schools held memorial services, places of entertainment were shut down and the Israeli flag was waved at half mast.

At Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial and museum, the nation's leaders gathered along with Holocaust survivors for the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Warsaw Ghetto Square. Later, ordinary Israelis flocked to the museum's hall of remembrance to recite names of victims. Other ceremonies, prayers and music performances were planned.

At last night's opening ceremony at Yad Vashem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert noted that Israel celebrates its 59th Independence Day next week.

"The renewal of the Jewish people, its shaking off the ashes of the Holocaust for a new life and national rebirth in its historic birthplace, is the pinnacle of its victory," he said.

But the plight of the Holocaust survivors in Israel has been difficult. Many arrived directly from Europe to fight in the Jewish state's war of independence in 1948, and have since struggled to cope with the physical and emotional burdens of the Second World War.

Recent data reveals that about a third of the remaining Holocaust survivors in Israel live under the poverty line, drawing widespread outrage.

"We must never accept a reality in which even one of the Holocaust survivors in Israel is living without dignity," Acting President Dalia Itzik said in a speech yesterday.

The government announced it was establishing a commission to solve the matter, but hundreds gathered in front of parliament Monday to protest what they called the state's neglect of survivors.

With the passing years, fewer and fewer survivors remain. There are some 250,000 survivors in Israel, about half of the worldwide total. Nearly 10% of the ageing population dies each year.

In Israel, 2,000 die each month, a rate of 65 daily, according to experts cited in Israeli newspapers today.

With each passing day, the world loses its last live voices who can directly attest to the horrors of the Holocaust and confront a growing tide of worldwide Holocaust denial.

To this purpose, Yad Vashem has led a vigorous campaign in recent years to complete its database of names of Holocaust victims, encouraging survivors to come forth and fill out pages of testimony for those murdered, before their names and stories are lost forever.

Even so, Yad Vashem has only managed to gather just 3.1 million names. In the museum's vast Hall of Names, half the folders remain empty.

Reading from her list of names today, Michal Beer halted to choke back the tears.

The 78-year-old survivor of the Terezin concentration camp has submitted more pages of testimony than anyone else, documenting the lives of 450 friends and relatives, including her father and almost all the Jews in her hometown of Prostejov, in the Czech Republic.

"I feel as if a great weight has lifted from my heart," she said of the pages of testimony. "No one would have remembered them, if I hadn't done this, who would have? Soon, I will no longer be around. We really are the last ones."

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