Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day focuses on children

JERUSALEM (AP) — Hanita Leshem’s parents handed her over to a Christian family in Ukraine in 1941, when she was just a year old, to save her from the Nazi troops murdering the Jews there. Leshem, now a 69-year-old grandmother living in Jerusalem, never saw her mother and father again.

On Tuesday, she stood among other child survivors as Israel marked its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day honoring the 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis – including her parents.

Leshem was raised by two Christian families and spent some time in a Polish orphanage before she moved at age 7 to what later became Israel, where she was adopted. For decades, she was unable to track down the names of her biological parents. But after exhaustive research and a trip to her hometown near Lvov, she finally learned in 1995 that she was born Isabela Waldbaum, the only child of Ella and Leopold.

She recited her dead parents’ names Tuesday at the main state ceremony of the day at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.

“I feel like we have won. I am the evidence that we have overcome, despite everything,” she said. “We beat Hitler, and we will beat that Ahmadinejad, too,” she said. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has suggested the Holocaust never occurred and repeatedly has called for Israel’s annihilation.

At a high-profile U.N. conference on racism in Switzerland on Monday, Ahmadinejad accused Israel of being the “most cruel and repressive racist regime” and the West of using the Holocaust as a “pretext” for aggression against Palestinians. Dozens of European diplomats walked out of the hall in protest; 10 countries, including Israel and the U.S., had boycotted the conference altogether, expecting it to become a forum for Israel-bashing.

At a ceremony opening Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel would “not allow the Holocaust deniers to carry out another Holocaust against the Jewish people.”

Frenetic Israel came to a standstill for two minutes on Tuesday morning as air-raid sirens sounded across the country in mournful tribute to the Holocaust dead. Cars came to a halt and people froze in their tracks, many with heads bowed.

Throughout the entire day, television stations broadcast historical documentaries and movies, and radio stations played somber music and interviewed survivors. Schools held memorial services, places of entertainment were shut down and the Israeli flag was flown at half staff.

This year’s memorial event honored the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust. Many of the tens of thousands who survived, like Leshem, were taken in by Christians who risked their lives to protect Jews.

An official wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem followed with Israeli leaders and Holocaust survivors in attendance. Later, ordinary Israelis flocked to the museum’s Hall of Remembrance to recite names of victims. Other ceremonies, prayers and music performances took place at the parliament and throughout the country.

An estimated 250,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel, roughly half of those still alive worldwide.

The Nazis wiped out a third of world Jewry during World War II.

Demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem projected that if the Holocaust had not happened, between 26 million and 32 million Jews would now be living worldwide, as opposed to just over 13 million today.

Yad Vashem has recently upgraded its Web site to offer new research tools. Its latest entry is “The Untold Stories,” devoted to documenting the massacres of Jews in small- and medium-sized communities that had been lost to history.