By Erik Kirschbaum and Ari Rabinowitch
BERLIN/OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) – Israeli leaders called Iran a threat to the world on Wednesday, which is International Holocaust Memorial Day, and vowed that the Jewish people would never again fall victim to a fanatical regime.
On January 27, 1945, Soviet Red Army troops liberated the largest and most notorious Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, near the village of Oswiecim in southern Poland, where up to 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, perished during World War Two.
“This day not only represents a memorial day for victims, not only the pangs of conscience of humankind in the face of the incomprehensible atrocity that took place, but also of the tragedy that derived from the procrastination in taking action,” Israeli President Shimon Peres told the German parliament.
“Never again ignore blood-thirsty dictators, hiding behind demagogical masks, who utter murderous slogans,” he said.
Speaking in Hebrew, Peres lashed out at Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust took place and has called for the destruction of Israel.
“The threats to annihilate a people and a nation are voiced in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, which are held by irresponsible hands, by irrational thinking and in an untruthful language,” said Peres.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also stressed the need for vigilance in comments to reporters shortly before attending a ceremony at the Auschwitz site along with Poland’s leaders and government ministers from nearly 30 other countries.
“I think the tragedy of the Jewish people was that it didn’t have the ability to recognize the danger in time, the ability to protect itself after recognizing (the danger,)” Netanyahu said.
“This situation has totally changed in the past 65 years. (We are coming here to say) we are a nation that can defend itself and also a country that is able to alert the nations of the world to the danger,” he added.
Peres, 86, recalled the horrors of the Holocaust in his speech broadcast on German national television and how his grandfather was burned to death in a Belarus synagogue that the Nazis locked from the outside.
He also paid tribute to postwar democratic Germany’s close ties with the state of Israel and he praised Iranians who protested against the outcome of last year’s presidential election that saw Ahmadinejad return to power.
“Like our neighbors, we identify with the millions of Iranians who revolt against dictatorship and violence,” he said.
The theme of the commemoration at Auschwitz, held in subzero temperatures and attended by around 150 death camp survivors, was the education of young people about the Holocaust.
“This place determined who I am today, aged nearly 90. I still have one mission — to pass on to the next generation knowledge of what happened here,” camp survivor August Kowalczyk told reporters at the site. Kowalczyk, a retired actor, spent two years at the camp from 1940 and became one of the very few prisoners to escape.
In an article published in Poland’s best-selling tabloid Fakt on Wednesday, Polish President Lech Kaczynski stressed the importance of education in helping to ensure Nazi-style atrocities do not recur.
“By focusing on education, we protect the future of our societies and countries from repeating the same nightmare of totalitarian manipulation which led to the establishment of such places as Auschwitz-Birkenau,” he wrote.
Jewish groups have expressed concern about what they see as a rise in anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia and racism in some European countries and have called for increased education about the Holocaust.
Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community before World War Two. The vast majority perished in the Nazi camps.
The museum that now runs the Auschwitz site will house an exhibition chronicling the camp’s liberation by the Red Army.
Russia was represented on Wednesday by its education minister after President Dmitry Medvedev declined an invitation from Kaczynski to attend.