World leaders and Holocaust survivors were Thursday set to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the World War II death camp where the Nazis killed more than 1.1 million people, most of them Jews.
The presidents of Russia and France, US vice-president Mike Pence and Britain’s Prince Charles - representing the war-time Allied powers - were to address the sombre ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem.
Germany’s president was also set to speak at the meeting of more than 40 heads of state, premiers and royals - the biggest international diplomatic gathering ever held in Israel, which was guarded by more than 10,000 police, one third of the national force.
Alongside Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leaders will warn against a resurgence of anti-Semitism in speeches at the memorial centre for the six million Jews that Nazi Germany killed in gas chambers, ghettos and forced labour camps.
‘This is a historic gathering, not only for Israel and the Jewish people, but for all humanity,’ said Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, calling on the world to ‘stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism’.
About 100 Holocaust survivors were to join the event, pray for the dead and light a memorial torch.
Among them was Yona Amit, 81, who as a child spent the war hiding from the Nazis but lost family members including her cousin.
‘I exchanged shoes with him playing,’ shortly before he was captured, she recalled.
‘They were straight away sent to Auschwitz. And of course my cousin, with my shoes: straight away up in the chimneys, in the gas chambers,’ she said.
‘My shoes are in that big mound of shoes in Auschwitz, my shoes are there. I am here.’
The ceremonies move on next Monday to the site in Poland of the Auschwitz camp, which was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945.
When Russian president Vladimir Putin landed in Israel, he was greeted by Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who warmly welcomed him in historical, diplomatic and personal terms.
‘In Israel we cherish the heroism of the Russian people in the war and the Red Army’s crucial role in defeating Nazi Germany and liberating the death camps, including Auschwitz,’ Katz said according to his spokeswoman.
‘On a personal note, thanks to the Red Army, my mother, who was taken as a youth to Auschwitz, was saved, immigrated to Israel and started a family - thank you.’
Israel’s top diplomat added that Putin’s visit would allow both sides to ‘deepen our rich ties and again discuss the security challenges facing Israel and the Middle East’.
While the focus in Jerusalem will be on the Holocaust and its haunting legacy, modern geopolitics play a role at the event, held at a time of soaring US-Iranian tensions.
Putin has been a key actor in the Middle East since his forces, along with Iranian fighters, started backing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2015.
The commemorations were organised by Moshe Kantor, a billionaire close to the Kremlin who is also a prominent figure in Russia’s Jewish community and the president of the European Jewish Congress.
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