1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Israel observes Holocaust Remembrance Day amid Gaza war

May 6, 2024

Israel has commemorated the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. This year's Holocaust Remembrance Day comes amid the ongoing war in Gaza, where more than 100 Israeli hostages are still being held by Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, front, attends a wreath-laying ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day
'If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,' said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defying international calls for restraint in GazaImage: Amir Cohen/AP/picture alliance

Sirens blared across Israel on Monday, cars stopped in the streets and people stood in silence for two minutes as the country remembered the 6 million Jewish victims killed by the German National Socialists during the Holocaust.

Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Yom Hashoah, takes place every year in April or May according to the Hebrew calendar, whereas International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed on January 27.

This year's ceremonies come seven months into Israel's war in Gaza, where more than 100 Israeli hostages are still being held by the Palestinian militant group Hamas following its deadly attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, which saw some 1,200 Israelis killed.

Since then, almost 35,000 people have been killed during retaliatory Israeli military operations in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the enclave, sparking increasing international criticism.

Netanyahu talks politics during ceremony

Speaking at a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on Sunday night, a solemn setting where politics are typically left outside, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the occasion to reject international pressure to halt the war in Gaza.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day
Netanyahu insisted the October 7 attacks were not comparable to the HolocaustImage: Menahem Kahana/AFP

"During the terrible Holocaust, there were important leaders who stood on the sidelines," he said, referring to the failure of international governments to intervene earlier in the systematic murder of Jews by Nazi Germany and its allies between 1933 and 1945.

"The first lesson from the Holocaust is therefore: if we do not defend ourselves, no one else will defend us," he said. "And if we have to stand up for ourselves alone, then we will stand up for ourselves alone."

Addressing world leaders who have urged him not to push ahead with a ground offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where over 1 million refugees have already fled but where Israel believes Hamas' last battalions are holding out, Netanyahu insisted in English: "No amount of pressure, no decision by any international forum will stop Israel from defending itself. 'Never again' is now."

According to official figures, 132,826 Holocaust survivors still live in Israel, the creation of which in 1948 came just three years after the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany. An estimated 2,500 are reported to have been directly affected by the events of October 7.

'March of the Living' takes place at Auschwitz

One of those is Judith Tzamir, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor from Germany who moved to Israel in 1964 and whose kibbutz fended off Hamas militants on October 7.

The attack prompted Tzamir to visit the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland for the first time on Holocaust Remembrance Day, where she took part in the "March of the Living," an annual event that recreates the 3-kilometer (2-mile) walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau, where approximately 1 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

The event, now in its 36th year, usually draws thousands of participants, including Holocaust survivors and Jewish students, leaders and politicians. This year, Israeli hostages released from captivity in Gaza and families whose relatives are still being held captive also joined the march.

People holding Israeli flags pose for a photo at the former Nazi German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland
Holocaust survivors and families of the victims of Nazi crimes took part in the annual 'March of the Living' at the Auschwitz concentration camp on MondayImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP/picture alliance

"I don't know if the world will listen, but even for myself, it's important," Tzamir told The Associated Press news agency, having turned down past invitations to visit Auschwitz. "To remember that there's still antisemitism around, and there are still people who will kill just for religious reasons."

While the militia in Tzamir's kibbutz managed to fend off the Hamas fighters, others were not so fortunate. Daniel Louz, a 90-year-old whose kibbutz lost a tenth of its residents, also came to Auschwitz for the first time since his mother's family was murdered there in 1942.

"I am convinced that, on October 7, the good souls [of the Holocaust dead] protected me and did not let the Hamas criminals shoot at our home so that I might be able to tell the story," Louz told the Reuters news agency.

Phyllis Greenberg Heideman, head of the International March of the Living, said during Monday's event that the Holocaust was "the worst event in human history" and that the very word "Auschwitz" conveys "fear, death, destruction [and] annihilation."

"And then came October 7, and perhaps we have to come as a people to the realization that, in some ways, the Shoah [the Holocaust] isn't over for us," she continued. "It's not a competition, certainly not a comparison; it's a continuum."

Netanyahu condemns rise in antisemitism

Back in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem, where one chair was left empty to represent those hostages still being held by Hamas, Netanyahu insisted that, while the "desire to annihilate" was there, October 7 and the Nazi Holocaust are not comparable.

"Hamas terrorists slaughtered, abused, raped and abducted," he said. "But I want to make it clear: October 7 was not a Holocaust."

However, he did accuse the recent wave of pro-Palestinian student protests in the US of antisemitism, comparing them to German universities in the 1930s, and spoke of an "explosion of a volcano of antisemitism spitting out a boiling lava of lies against us around the world."

Report: Rise in antisemitic incidents in Germany

On Sunday, an annual Antisemitism Worldwide Report published by Tel Aviv University found a sharp increase in antisemitic attacks globally in 2023. It said the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States doubled from 3,697 in 2022 to 7,523 in 2023.

Similarly, the number of antisemitic incidents reported in France nearly quadrupled from 436 in 2022 to 1,676 in 2023, while it more than doubled in the United Kingdom and Canada.

"In the aftermath of the October 7 war crimes committed by Hamas, the world has seen the worst wave of antisemitic incidents since the end of the Second World War," the report stated.

Speaking alongside Netanyahu, Israeli President Isaac Herzog addressed the families of the hostages, saying: "We will not rest and not be silent until our sons and daughters have returned home."

mf/ab (Reuters, AP, dpa)