Siren wails as Israel marks annual Holocaust Remembrance Day

Visitors pray before their tour at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 23, 2017. Israel is marking the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day beginning at sunset Sunday. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel came to a standstill on Monday as people stopped in their tracks for a two-minute siren that wailed across the country in remembrance of the Holocaust’s 6 million Jewish victims.

The ritual is the centerpiece of Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day for those who were systematically killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. Pedestrians stood in place, buses stopped on busy streets and cars pulled over on major highways — their drivers standing on the roads with their heads bowed.

In homes and businesses, people stopped what they were doing to pay homage to the victims of the Nazi genocide, in which a third of world Jewry was annihilated.

A wreath-laying ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial followed, with Israeli leaders and Holocaust survivors in attendance. A public reading of names also took place in Israel’s parliament, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders recited names of relatives who were killed. Other ceremonies, prayers and musical performances took place in schools, community centers and army bases around the country.

The annual remembrance is one of the most solemn days on Israel’s calendar. Restaurants, cafes and places of entertainment shut down, and radio and TV programs are dedicated almost exclusively to documentaries about the Holocaust, interviews with survivors and somber music. The Israeli flag flew at half-staff.

Israel was established in 1948, just three years after the end of the war, and hundreds of thousands of survivors fled there. Some 160,000 elderly survivors remain, with a similar number worldwide. With the passing years, and the dwindling in numbers of survivors, greater emphasis has been put on commemorating their individual stories.

The central theme of this year’s commemorations at Yad Vashem is “Restoring Their Identities: The Fate of the Individual During the Holocaust.”

The Holocaust memorial called on the public to share testimony and provide more names of those who perished. To date, Yad Vashem’s Shoah Victims’ Names Project has collected over 4,700,000 names of the victims.

“It is a race against the clock to collect as many names of those murdered during the Holocaust before there are no more survivors left,” said Alexander Avram, the director of Vad Vashem’s Hall of Names.

At the opening ceremony on Sunday night, Netanyahu spoke about what he said was the world’s indifference to the genocide of the Jews in World War II and how Israel is the guarantee the Jewish people will never be that weak again.

“The lesson is that we must be able to defend ourselves by ourselves, against every threat, against every enemy,” he said.

President Reuven Rivlin took a different approach. He said although the Holocaust is “permanently branded in our flesh” it “is not the lens through which we should examine our past and our future.”