JERUSALEM – Israel came to a standstill Monday morning with a two-minute siren heard across the country as Israelis paid tribute to the 6 million Jews who perished during the Nazi Holocaust.
Pedestrians froze in their tracks, buses stopped on busy streets and cars pulled over on major highways — their drivers standing on the roads with their heads bowed — in the annual ritual marking Holocaust Memorial Day.
In keeping with tradition, media carried somber music and numerous tales from the rapidly dwindling number of Holocaust survivors that included some 200,000 elderly Israelis. But the melancholy nature of the day was leavened by news that U.S. forces had killed terror mastermind Osama bin Laden just hours before.
"This successful operation sends the important message that terror and evil will find no permanent shelter and will eventually be destroyed, just as the Nazis decades before," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in a statement.
The Holocaust ended in 1945 with the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. But the Nazi extermination of nearly a third of the world's Jewish population remains a strong undercurrent in Israel.
At a ceremony Sunday night at the start of the sunset-to-sunset commemoration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a parallel between the Nazis who sought to exterminate the Jewish people and Iran's talk of Israel's destruction.
The most important lesson of the Holocaust is, "if someone threatens to destroy us, we must not ignore their threats," Netanyahu said.
Following the midmorning air raid sirens, Israeli leaders and Holocaust survivors attended an official wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem, the country's national Holocaust memorial, in Jerusalem. Other ceremonies, prayers and musical performances took place in schools, community centers and army bases.
The annual remembrance is one of the most solemn on Israel's calendar. Restaurants, cafes and places of entertainment shut down, and radio and TV programming was dedicated almost exclusively to documentaries about the Holocaust, interviews with survivors and somber music. The Israeli flag flew at half staff.
At the Israeli parliament, Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and other officials read names of loved ones who perished.
Peres recited the names of his family members killed "with 2,060 of their community members in the town of Vishneva in August 1942," saying the "Nazis and their accomplices assembled the town's residents in the synagogue that was made of wood and cruelly shot and burned them to death."
Netanyahu also recited the names of his wife's relatives who perished.
The reading is an annual rite known as "Every Person Has a Name" that tries to break down the 6 million number into stories of individuals, families and communities destroyed during the war. It also aims to counter those who claim the Holocaust did not happen.