OSWIECIM, Poland – In a defiant speech from the place that symbolizes the suffering of Jews during World War II, Israel's prime minister warned on Thursday that the Jewish state will do everything to prevent another Holocaust and to defend itself against any threat.
Benjamin Netanyahu spoke during the inauguration of a new pavilion at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz that is to educate visitors about the Holocaust and the Nazis' quest to exterminate Jews. Auschwitz, with adjacent Birkenau, was the most notorious in a system of death camps that Nazi Germany built and operated in occupied Poland.
"From here, the place that attests to the desire to destroy us, I, the prime minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, say to all the nations of the world: The state of Israel will do whatever is necessary to prevent another Holocaust," Netanyahu said, as he stood in front of the red-brick former prisoner block that houses the new exhibition.
"We must not be complacent in the face of threats of annihilation. We must not bury our heads in the sand or allow others to do the work for us," he said, in what appeared to be a reference to Iran and its nuclear program.
Israel, along with the West, suspects that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Israel says a nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a threat to its existence, citing Iran's support for hostile militant groups, its long-range missile program and its hostile rhetoric toward the Jewish state. Netanyahu has signaled that Israel would be prepared to strike Iran unilaterally if necessary, if he concludes that international sanctions and diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program have failed.
Iran says all of its nuclear programs are peaceful and that it only seeks reactors for energy and medical use.
Netanyahu, whose father was born in Warsaw, has an emotional connection to the Holocaust, although he has faced criticism for citing it frequently in the context of current events, notably regarding the potential nuclear threat from Iran.
For years, Netanyahu has used his annual address on Israel's Holocaust remembrance day to caution about the danger of a nuclear Iran and vowing that "never again" will the Jews be powerless to defend themselves.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Netanyahu remained undeterred by the critics, insisting the intentions of the Iranians are just as murderous of those that existed in World War II. "The comparison is intentional," he said.
Before the speech, Netanyahu visited Block 27, which is now dedicated to presenting Auschwitz in the larger context of the World War II genocide. More than 1.1 million of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust died in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Among some 4.2 million names of Holocaust victims listed, page after page, on a 14-meter (yard) -long list, Netanyahu found the name of Yehudit Hun, the twin sister of his late father-in-law, killed in Bilgoraj, southeastern Poland.
"If there are Holocaust deniers, have them come to Block 27 and go over one name at a time," Netanyahu said in clear reference to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who questions the extent of the Holocaust.
The exhibition was curated by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. It also includes a 360-degree montage of vibrant pre-war Jewish life, survivor testimonies and drawings by some of the 1.5 million children killed in the Holocaust.
The Germans carried out the Holocaust to a large extent in occupied Poland, because it had Europe's largest Jewish population and it was at the heart of a railway network that allowed the Nazis to easily transport Jews there from elsewhere in Europe.
Many Israeli leaders are children of Holocaust survivors, and Israel has the world's largest population of survivors.
Israel's own Holocaust remembrance day is in the spring, and coincides with the beginning of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Ganz, for instance, has a picture of Auschwitz in his office as a reminder of what he is fighting for.
In recent years, Poland has become one of the friendliest states to Israel.