Image: Jewish man visits the Hall of Names
Sebastian Scheiner  /  AP
An Ultra Orthodox Jewish man visits the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 1. Israel will mark its annual Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday, May, 2.
updated 5/1/2011 3:38:06 PM ET 2011-05-01T19:38:06

Israel's prime minister warned Sunday that the nation must not dismiss Iran's threats to its existence, drawing a parallel at a ceremony in memory of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, a mass murder that still reverberates in the Jewish state more than six decades later.

Iran and its allies, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, openly call for the destruction of Israel, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and "Iran is even arming itself with nuclear weapons to accomplish that goal."

He said the most important lesson of the Holocaust for the Jewish people is, "if someone threatens to destroy us, we must not ignore their threats."

Netanyahu addressed a crowd of hundreds of Holocaust survivors, diplomats and Israeli leaders at Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial center.

"The threat against our existence and our future is not theoretical," he said. "It must be stopped." Iran denies it is making nuclear weapons.

For years Israel has called for world action to stop the Iranian nuclear program, backing diplomatic efforts and sanctions but never taking the option of a military strike off the table.

At the memorial ceremony, six Holocaust survivors lit symbolic torches to mark the beginning of the annual observance.

At midmorning Monday, air raid sirens were to sound around the country to mark two minutes of silence in honor of the victims, followed by ceremonies called "Each Person Has a Name," in which people read out the names of victims at Israel's parliament and other public locations.

Organizers explain that listing names gives the huge number of 6 million a personal element, as well as countering those who claim the Holocaust did not happen.

Israel has also been marking 50 years since the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi master planner who was abducted from Argentina and brought to Israel to face charges.

The 1961 trial marked a turning point in Israel's attitude toward survivors, at first denigrated for being helpless victims. The stories that emerged from the trial, revealing the inhuman conditions Jews faced at the hands of the Nazis and relating their mostly ineffective attempts to rebel, won new sympathy for the survivors.

Just hours before the commemoration began, Moshe Landau, the chief judge at the Eichmann trial, died. He was 99.

The Holocaust ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allies in 1945, but the Nazi goal of killing all Jews and their ability to wipe out a third of the Jewish people in death camps still provide a prominent motif for Israeli politics and society.

About 200,000 aged survivors of the Nazi genocide live in Israel, some of them alone and destitute. On Sunday, Israel's Cabinet took a small step toward giving additional aid to the survivors, recognizing their umbrella group as their official representative.

Because entire European families and communities were eliminated by the Nazi death machine, millions of dollars in bank accounts and other valuables remain unclaimed.

Project HEART, The Holocaust Era Asset Restitution Taskforce, has amassed a database listing over 650,000 pieces of property owned by Jews in prewar Europe.

Bobby Brown, the executive director of Project HEART, said the campaign hopes to deliver restitution to aging survivors before it is too late.

"Now is the time for us to do our utmost to give these heroes some of the compensation that has been denied them for so long," he said.

The campaign is a joint initiative of the Israeli government and the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency.

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