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Israel Commemorates Holocaust 50 Years After the Nazi Defeat

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

The siren began on a rising note before settling into a mournful steady tone. For two long minutes in the heart of downtown Jerusalem, and nearly everywhere else Jews live in the Jewish state, the signs of human movement simply stopped.

On King George Street outside the Mashbir department store, the surge of horn-happy traffic braked to a halt. Most drivers got out and stood at attention beside their cars. Pedestrians became so many somber manikins. Even Miriam Eli, an aging beggar who squats on a corner here most every day, slipped her sandals on and stood silently among the well-heeled passersby.

"What else would I do?" she asked afterward. "I know it's very sad, because of all of the people who died."

This is the day that Israel commemorates the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews perished at the hands of Hitler's Germany. The outward forms of remembrance, in this 50th anniversary of Nazi defeat, remained much as they have been: mandatory full-day lessons in school, the closure of theaters and bars, an all-Holocaust lineup on television and radio and two minutes of motionless meditation as the sirens sounded at 10 a.m.

But things are also changing here, and Israel wrestled all week with its complex relationship to the catastrophe that also, as much as any one factor, resulted in its founding as a state.

Fewer survivors remain each year, and younger Israelis regard the Holocaust through the duller lens of history. Yet thousands were moved by what they learned, in lessons tailored to their age.

Second-graders discovered, aghast, that Hitler's Nuremberg Laws forbade Jewish children to own pet cats or dogs. Even those who thought there was no fresh trauma left found it in a new book about rabbis in communities facing extermination. One woman in a hidden bunker gave birth without a sound, according to author Avraham Fuchs. But the baby would not stop crying, and her rabbi said it was permissible to kill the child because the cries endangered them all.

The emotional charge of the Holocaust has always been amplified in Israel by the ongoing threat of neighbors who called for the country's extinction. As recently as the Persian Gulf War, the fear of Iraqi poison gas, awaited by families huddled together in sealed rooms, brought back powerful images of Hitler's death camps.

This year, for the first time, Israel has peace partners on two of its international borders, with Egypt and Jordan, and once-unthinkable negotiations are under way with Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"If you want to locate the significance of the Holocaust at this moment in Israeli history, I think it is that for the first time in the history of this country the Holocaust day is being commemorated in the context of a general sense of a movement away from war," said Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political philosopher.

The diminution of danger, Ezrahi said, permits another question to be asked more loudly than before: "Is our enterprise here just self-defense, or are we inflicting untold suffering - not genocide, something less than that, but also quite evil - on the Palestinians?"

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an unsentimental general who is disinclined to such meditations, is nonetheless sharply different in outlook from those who held the premiership before him. Born in Israel, he is far less inclined than his European-born predecessors to use Holocaust images to describe the conflicts of the day.

"Golda Meir opened her biography with a description of a pogrom, and Menachem Begin missed a career as a ghetto fighter and that haunted him his whole life," said Dina Porat, who heads a Tel Aviv University project on antisemitism. "It's hard to imagine Rabin getting up and making a speech about the Holocaust on his own initiative, except today, when he has to."

In his televised address at the Yad Vashem memorial, Rabin subtly criticized the familiar message, still in use here on the political right, that equates the Arabs with the Nazis, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with Hitler. Along with the traditional prayer for the dead, Rabin recited another standard blessing: "He who makes peace in the heavens, may He bring peace upon us and upon all the Jewish people."