JERUSALEM – Israelis flocked to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial Thursday to read the names of loved ones who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, a rite that has become a centerpiece of the country's annual commemoration for the 6 million Jews killed in the genocide.
The ceremony, known as "Every Person Has a Name," tries to go beyond the huge numbers to personalize the stories of individuals, families and communities destroyed during the war.
Zvi Shefet, an 87-year-old survivor, carried a list of 48 names, including those of his parents, his lone sister, his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. Having fled to the countryside, he remained not only the lone survivor of his family but also one of the few Jews to escape from the village of Slonim -- then part of Poland, today in Belarus -- where Nazi troops massacred nearly 30,000 Jews and dumped their bodies into open pits.
"These people have no grave, no tombstone. Their names are written nowhere," said Shefet, who later migrated to Israel and now has three children and eight grandchildren. "When I go to Yad Vashem, it is like I am going to the cemetery, to remember my family but also my community -- all those who died and have no one left behind to even remember them or commemorate them."
Israel came to a standstill Thursday morning to honor the victims when sirens wailed for two-minutes across the country. 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 Yad Vashem followed, with Israeli leaders and Holocaust survivors in attendance. 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 were dedicated almost exclusively to documentaries about the Holocaust, interviews with survivors and somber music. The Israeli flag flew at half staff.
A public reading of names also took place at Israel's parliament, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders recited names of relatives who were killed.
At the opening state ceremony Wednesday night at Yad Vashem, Israeli leaders linked the Nazi genocide to Iran's suspected drive to acquire nuclear arms and urged the world to stop it.
"Those who dismiss the Iranian threat as a whim or an exaggeration haven't learned a thing from the Holocaust," said Netanyahu, who has been criticized by some in Israel for making the connection.
Iranian leaders have repeatedly made references to the destruction of Israel.
Iran denies its objective is to build nuclear bombs. Many in Israel believe that even if it does, a comparison to Nazi death camps, gas "showers" and crematoria is unwarranted.
"The question is whether additional speeches laden with pathos and cliches, and whether the airing of hollow threats will serve the shared goal of disarming Iran of nuclear weapons?" wrote columnist Ben Caspit in the Israeli Maariv daily, asking, "Isn't it a bit excessive to compare Tehran's threats of war to the Nazi extermination machine, the theories about racial superiority, the creation of a murder machine that was unprecedented in the history of humankind that not only exterminated 6 million Jews but dragged the entire world into the flames?"
The link drawn between the Holocaust and Iran shows how more than six decades later, the mass murder of Jews during World War II is still a central part of Israel's psyche. The nation was created just three years after the end of the war, and hundreds of thousands of survivors made their way to Israel.
One of those was Shefet, who joined the Polish resistance movement, met his future wife, then sailed with her to Israel.
Today, they are among fewer than 200,000 elderly survivors in Israel.