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World leaders to gather to commemorate Holocaust

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Shaya Ben Yehuda

More than 30 heads of state – including those from Germany, France and Russia – are expected to attend a daylong event in Jerusalem in January that will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

While the event will focus on what countries will do to combat anti-Semitism, the emphasis will be on passing the torch to the next generation.

“Above all, it’s a matter of the future of our kids – that they feel that participating in the heritage of Jewish life and sharing the history (means) understanding the responsibility to take it to the future,” Shaya Ben Yehuda, the managing director of the international relations division at Yad Vashem, told The CJN in a recent interview.

“It’s a huge challenge for all of us, and Holocaust remembrance is playing a major role,” added Yehuda, who was in Toronto to raise awareness of the conference and meet officials at the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.

The Fifth World Holocaust Forum will take place on Jan. 23 at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Titled “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Anti-Semitism,” it will be hosted by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

“As the world prepares to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the message will be clear that anti-Semitism has no place in our global society,” reads a release from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum.

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Emmanuel Macron of France, along with their counterparts from Germany, Hungary, Italy and Austria, are among the leaders who have confirmed their attendance.

In all, some 900 participants are expected. That level of interest is above and beyond what organizers had hoped for.

“We thought we would have 15 to 20 countries,” Ben Yehuda said. “It came to a point where demand to participate went far beyond our expectations and space.”

In fact, some South American countries had to be turned away. The Allied countries, European countries and all 33 members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, including Canada, were invited.

Ben Yehuda said he expects that Gov. Gen. Julie Payette will be invited.

The gathering’s themes of Holocaust remembrance and anti-Semitism go hand-in-hand, Ben Yehuda said.

“Anti-Semitism is something we all have to understand – that if we don’t find a way to be proactive and give our children the methods and reasons to represent the Jewish heritage and why they have to be part of it – that they don’t say, ‘We don’t want to be part of it.’ And I’m worried.”

The idea, he went on, is to form “a strong international voice for the importance of Holocaust remembrance for years to come,” and to fight the current rise of anti-Semitism, “not just through education, but also legislation in each country.”

The outcome “should be a public message from all heads of state: we have a problem and we have to confront it and have to be proactive.”

Yad Vashem is also taking part in Liberation 75 in Toronto from May 31 to June 2.

Billed as the largest international event to mark the 75th anniversary of liberation from the Holocaust, with 3,000 participants expected, it will focus on remembering the victims, honouring survivors, showcasing the future of Holocaust education, inspiring descendants, enlightening teachers and students, celebrating the role of liberators and “committing to the protection of freedom, diversity, human rights and inclusion,” according to its promotional material.

Events will include workshops, survivor testimonies, keynote speakers, a lifetime achievement awards celebration, film presentations and cultural interpretations.

Three officials from Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies are slated to give presentations.

“We are deeply involved in this project,” Ben Yehuda said.

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