“The State of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of the State of Israel there will never be a Holocaust again,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in brief remarks to the press this morning following his visit to the Yad Vashem memorial to the 1.5 million children murdered during the Holocaust.
Visibly moved during his hour-long visit to Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, the president made his remarks after signing the Yad Vashem guest book. “Here we see the depravity to which man can sink, the barbarism that unfolds when we get to see our fellow human beings as somehow less than us, less worthy of dignity and of life,” he said. “We see how evil can for a moment in time triumph when good people do nothing.
The president spent several minutes writing his entry in the guest book.
Following Obama’s remarks to the press, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev presented him with a unique manuscript – the sheet music to an original melody of traditional Passover song “Had Gadya,” written by the chief cantor of Amsterdam who was murdered with most of his family in the Sobibor death camp.
“A wonderful gift,” said Obama upon receiving it. “I’ll cherish this always.”
Standing beside him, Yisrael Lau, the head of the Yad Vashem council and former chief Ashkenazi rabbi, told Obama that as a child he had been liberated at the Buchenwald concentration camp by American troops. “This is an opportunity to thank you, to thank the American people for leading us not from slavery to freedom but from life to death,” he said.
The U.S. president said that although he had visited the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Buchenwald concentration camp on his trips to Europe, “nothing equals the power of this place.” It was Obama’s second visit to Yad Vashem.
In addition to the children’s memorial, Obama also visited the Hall of Remembrance, where he was invited to rekindle the eternal flame and lay a wreath on the stone crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victim. The president, dressed in a black suit and gray tie, crouched for a moment beside the wreath and appeared to be in deep thought. Flanked on one side by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres and on the other by Lau and Shalev, Obama listened solemnly as the Ankor children’s choir opened the ceremony with the song “Walk to Caesarea,” written by the young poet and parachutist Hannah Senesh, who was killed behind enemy lines in Hungary in 1944. Cantor Asher Hainowitz then sang "El Maleh Rachamim," a prayer for the dead.
Before the president made his entrance into the Hall of Remembrance, another member of his delegation – his speechwriter Ben Rhodes – seemed to be stealing much of the attention. Many of the VIPs in attendance were overheard congratulating and praising Rhodes on the presidential speech delivered the day before to thousands of Israeli students.
Dignitaries on hand said that Obama's visit had been highly compelling.
"Everything in this trip is rife with significance and symbolism not necessarily understandable to people around the world but poignantly meaningful to people in the Middle East,” Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, told Haaretz just before the president arrived at Yad Vashem. “By laying a wreath at Herzl's grave just now – an act that other foreign leaders have refused to do – President Obama was reaffirming Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state."
During his visit this morning, the president also spent some time at Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names and its Museum of Holocaust Art.
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