So many leaders and so much good will. As the rain falls and the chill sets in, I ask myself again and again: Is it true?
Seventy-five years have passed since the day the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp, freeing thousands of surviving inmates, among them my grandfather Rav Pinchas Menachem Yoskowitz ztz”l, future chief rabbi of Poland.
Exactly seven and a half decades later, here I am walking in the lush gardens of Israel’s presidential residence, where more than 40 world leaders have gathered for a state dinner to renew a solemn pledge: “Never again.”
It’s almost a decade since my grandfather’s passing, but in the conversations I have with the presidents of Romania and Portugal, as well as during King Felipe VI of Spain’s inspiring speech, I feel as though the leaders understand the gravity of those words.
For many years, in his capacity of chief rabbi of Poland, my grandfather ztz”l hosted leaders from across the globe at the site of Nazi death camps in Poland. As a Holocaust survivor who lost his parents and ten siblings, his duty to guarantee the future by commemorating the past accompanied him to his last days. Even after he stepped down from his position, my grandfather never held a meeting or conversation in which he didn’t incorporate the memory of the Holocaust.
I mentioned all this to Klaus Iohannis, the president of Romania, who was among the first dignitaries to appear at the presidential residence. I don’t know the man, and this was our first encounter, but he was clearly moved by the dinner, part of the World Holocaust Forum of 2020. He told me about the personal responsibility to history he felt as the president of a country in which horrific atrocities were perpetrated against the Jewish population — with the full endorsement of the government.
“I’ve come here to join the cry, to reinforce the commitment to combat anti-Semitism and root it out wherever it appears,” he said.
Iohannis emphasized the need for world leaders to join forces to stamp out racism and hatred of the “other.” When he speaks of taking responsibility for the past, he’s referring to Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s ally during the war, who was responsible for the pogrom of Iasi, the exile of the Jews of Serbia and Bukovina, and the massacre of Odessa.
The Jews of Romania experienced the full fury of the Holocaust, as the government not only failed to protect them but actively encouraged their torture and starvation. I remember my grandmother Pessya z”l telling me about the hunger that dogged her family throughout the war, and about the overpowering jealousy she felt when she saw a cow chewing grass in a green field. My conversation with Iohannis is cut short when Prime Minister Netanyahu approaches us. As usual at such events, Netanyahu is at his best. He speaks energetically, in fluent English, and his charisma fills the room.
President Reuven Rivlin, the organizer and host of the event, mingles with world leaders as only he can — with warmth, cordiality, and a winning frankness.
The president spent an entire year drafting the invitations, and the result is certainly impressive. Almost four dozen leaders, among them presidents, prime ministers, and royals, came to attend the two central events of the forum: a formal dinner at the president’s residence and a memorial service at Yad Vashem.
Only four Israeli politicians have been invited to the event: Prime Minister Netanyahu, head of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein. Naturally, Gantz and Netanyahu attract the most interest from the guests.
Gantz, the former chief of staff and novice politician, sticks close to the foreign minister, who introduces him to those wishing to make the acquaintance of the man who may become Israel’s next prime minister. Here the dissonance between what appears in the press and “real life” comes into view. Katz and Gantz grew up together as neighbors in Kfar Achim, and appear quite close. Every now and then they cross paths with Netanyahu, who shakes Gantz’s hand. (Not a word is exchanged between the prime minister and Edelstein, however. Apparently Netanyahu is still fuming at Edelstein’s recent decision to allow a Knesset committee to reject his immunity request.)
The prime minister is seated on a couch in a corner conferring at length with the presidents of Germany, Romania, Portugal, Greece, and Cyprus. They’re talking excitedly about a regional agreement being finalized between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus for an underwater pipeline to transfer gas to central Europe.
As the organizers summon the guests to enter the main hall, the president of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, notices the group of journalists and approaches. He tells us about his past as a media personality and expresses his decided opinion that no one wields more power in the state than the press. He waxes nostalgic about his former radio program, telling us that he had a national audience of four million listeners daily. “It’s a wonderful thing to be a journalist,” he says to my colleague Yanir Kuzin, clapping him on the back affectionately. With that, the first part of the evening is over. The room empties and the guests leave for the state dinner.
At the head table, President Rivlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the presidents of Germany and France dine side by side. The first speaker is, of course, President Rivlin, who welcomes the leaders and asks them to join his call to step up the war against anti-Semitic forces that obscure the past and revive ideas that led to the murder of millions of Jews during World War II. Between courses, slides on the walls tell the touching stories of survivors, serving as painful and living witnesses of the greatest tragedy in human history.
Before the main course, the master of ceremonies invites the king of Spain, Felipe VI, to deliver the keynote speech of the evening: “We have come today, Mr. President,” says the king, “not only to show our respect for survivors and our repugnance for what happened — not that long ago — in Auschwitz and many other places.
“We are also here — perhaps primarily — to show our unyielding commitment to bring all the necessary efforts of our respective countries in order to fight the ignorant intolerance, hatred, and the total lack of human empathy that permitted and gave birth to the Holocaust. Because preventing that civilizational sickness is a collective and individual responsibility. There is no room for indifference in the face of racism, xenophobia, hatred, and anti-Semitism.
“Disturbingly, we are witnessing a surge in hideous attacks on Jews in several parts of the world. But while I remain optimistic, I know we will persevere together so that the words we have repeated so many times, ‘never again,’ remain our guiding and unwavering light.”
In closing, the Spanish monarch emotionally uttered the Hebrew phrase “L’olam lo od [never again].”
The ceremony is over. I step out into the freezing Jerusalem night. An unending row of armored vehicles is parked outside, waiting to receive their important passengers. Tomorrow the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and Vice President Mike Pence of the United States will arrive for the ceremony at Yad Vashem.
So many leaders and so much good will. As the rain falls and the chill sets in, I ask myself again and again: Is it true? Never again?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 796)
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