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Who is the Fifth World Holocaust Forum for?

When more than 150,000 Holocaust survivors live in poverty, it's hard to appreciate the pomp and circumstance of this global display

It’s not for us. It’s not for the Holocaust survivors, their children, or their children’s children. It’s not for my mom, who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau only to discover that her beloved brother David z”l did not. He died on January 17 on the Death March from Auschwitz and while we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of his death and that of many like him, the Fifth World Holocaust Forum does not. This is not for her, for her children, for her grandchildren, or for her great-grandchildren. This is not for us.

How do I know? Because only 60 of the 780 places at the ceremony in Yad Vashem were allotted to survivors and their escorts. And Gd knows that remaining survivors in their 80s and 90s, who have suffered intolerable pain for most of their lives could not attend without escorts. The ceremony thus welcomed 47 world leaders to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, but it welcomed less than 47 survivors.

How do I know? Because when 94-year old Tzvi Eichenwald, one of the only remaining survivors of Auschwitz, who lost his entire family – his parents and nine brothers and sisters – asked to attend the ceremony the immediate answer was, “We regret that there is no space.” Thanks to the protest of many fine folks on social media, Mr. Eichenwald is sitting in the ceremony as I write these words. But many others were similarly turned away without recourse. Because the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz is not for them and not for us.

I have written here before that we do not need a special day to remember the Holocaust or the liberation from Auschwitz. Because every day is Holocaust Remembrance Day for us. Many of our parents, now afflicted with senile dementia and Alzheimer’s often resulting from blows to their heads, will remind us by reliving the Holocaust daily until their dying breath.

So, if it’s not for us, who is it for? It is for future generations who will quickly forget, who want to forget, and who would deny the Holocaust. A ceremony before 47 world leaders speaking multiple languages may help in preserving the memories of the unspeakable horrors visited on our parents and our people – men, women, children, and infants. It may shed international light on the six million Jews, 1.5 million children – nearly all of them Jewish, of the 220,000-500,000 killed in the Romani Genocide, and of the 5,000-15,000 homosexuals killed by the Nazis.

It may remind many of the dangers of rising anti-Semitism and racism; and it will hopefully remind attending world leaders of their responsibility to protect their citizens from this scourge.

The other ceremony today, in which my national leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled an 8.5-meter monument honoring the 600,000-1.5 million Russians who died in the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad was undoubtedly for him. How do I know? Because the televised ceremony was almost all in Russian. It wasn’t for Hebrew-speaking Israelis or the English-speaking American-Jewish community, the second largest in the world. It was for Russians, and particularly Russian Jews in Israel. The latter comprise a swing-vote representing 16 Knesset seats in coming Israeli elections in which our Prime Minister will be running under the shadow of indictments on three charges, including that of bribery. The ceremony featuring President Putin’s address was certainly a bid for their votes.

This ceremony was also for 27-year old jailed backpacker Naama Issachar, languishing in a Russian prison because under 10 grams of cannabis were discovered in her luggage during a layover in Moscow. It was an opportunity for her mother Yaffa Issachar to directly beg Putin to pardon her. And a chance for all of us to hope, pray and demand that she return swiftly to Israel and her loving family.

But the central Hebrew, English, and French-language ceremony at Yad Vashem today was also for our prime minister. It was a reminder to him that more than 150,000 Holocaust survivors – nearly a third of those remaining in Israel – live under the poverty line. That under his watch — that of the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history — these Holocaust survivors cannot afford to heat their homes and many must decide whether to buy food or medications.

It appears that the founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, John Hagee, believes that the Fifth World Holocaust Forum was for him — an opportunity to lecture us on how to combat the uptick in anti-Semitic attacks. But his advice is certainly not for us. I don’t know anyone with what we call a “Yiddishe kopp” who would embrace advice on fighting anti-Semitism from a pastor who would deliver a sermon interjecting comments praising Hitler among biblical verses as follows: “‘And they the hunters should hunt them,’ that will be the Jews. ‘From every mountain and from every hill and from out of the holes of the rocks.’ If that doesn’t describe what Hitler did in the Holocaust you can’t see that.” A pastor who claimed that Hitler was born from a lineage of “accursed, genocidally [sic] murderous half-breed Jews.”

And Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has made it crystal clear that the location in Jerusalem of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum is not for him. It’s not his cup of tea. He said, “For years, the organizer of this Forum has been making attempts to create it as an alternative commemorative event for the memorial site. Five years ago, he tried to invite heads of states to Theresienstadt at the same time.”

“It is simply so provocative and immature that I do not find the words to comment on it.”

(Perhaps Mr. Cywinski resents the loss in revenues represented in transferring these events from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the modern State of Israel.)

White House Senior Aide and grandson of Holocaust survivors Jared Kushner was invited, but he canceled his trip to the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, citing a flight delay caused by bad weather. So it’s not for him.

It’s not for him, and it’s not for us. And while I truly appreciate the need for a Fifth World Holocaust Forum and its location in my State of Israel, I hope that the Sixth World Holocaust Forum will be different. Because I can’t wait for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum to blow over.

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.
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