President Shimon Peres told his personal story at the central Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Yad Vashem on Wednesday.
“I was born in Wieszniev. Half of the townspeople came to Israel. The other half perished,” said Peres. “After the war, I learned that on Sunday August 30th, a dark dawn had come upon my hometown. The Nazis who had seized it ordered the Jews to pack their belongings and present themselves at their doorsteps.
“The SS officers passed by striking them and told them to proceed towards the synagogue.
“One of them cried out ‘Jews, save yourselves!’ The Germans shot down those who tried to escape. The rest reached the synagogue which was made of wood. The doors were locked. All were burned alive.
“That was the last day of Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, my grandfather, my mentor. He was consumed by fire with his Tallit on his head.
“That was the last Jewish day in Wieszniev.
“Not even a single Jew remained alive.”
Peres recalled his visit to Wieszniev after the war and said, “Not a Jewish mark remains. Not a house, not a synagogue, not a school, not a cemetery, only a heap of stones.
“As I stood there, the last Kol Nidrei prayer emitted by my grandfather's sweet voice rang in my ears.
“My lips murmured the Kadish.”
He added that Hitler chose to identify the Jews as his greatest enemy because “the moral strength of the Jews was more dangerous to him than the military menace of his neighbors.
“The Nazis feared that the Jewish conviction that all men are born in the image of God would damage the fascist lie according to which there is a superior race,” said Peres.
“They feared the prophetic vision may dent the Nazi sword.
“I am proud to be an arch enemy to the Nazi evil.
“I am proud of our fathers' legacy being absolutely opposed to racism.
“I am proud of our belief that there is no one Man superior to another Man.
“There is no superior race, only deep roots.”
Peres reminded the audience of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and of the importance of them not being discriminated again.
“We are obligated to make sure that none of them are ever discriminated because of their nationality or religion,” he said. “This is the essence of the existence of the State of Israel. Israel is a defense shield, a safe haven and a great spirit. Had the State of Israel existed during those days, I am convinced that things would have been different. We have paid a high price but we have not lost faith.”
Like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose speech at the ceremony focused on the Iranian threat, Peres called on humanity to “learn from the lessons of the Holocaust and stand strong against existential threats before it is too late.”
He added, “Iran is at the heart of this threat. She is the center of terror, she represents a threat to world peace. There is no reason to undermine Israel's capacities to face this threat, whether visible or hidden.”
Peres concluded by saying, “We came today to say Kaddish in memory of our beloved ones who were killed in the Holocaust. We came to say and to swear ‘Never again’. We came to say that we are a peaceful people who can defend itself.
“We can and we will.
“We have built and we shall build.
“We will always remember our 6 million brothers who perished in the Holocaust.”