Israeli President Shimon Peres and Belgian Crown Prince Philippe recognized 11 Belgian families who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust with the Righteous Among the Nations award Tuesday in Brussels.
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"On behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, I thank you from the depths of my heart," Peres told the families at the ceremony. "The Righteous Among the Nations brought light into the world and exhibited bravery and courage in the face of the atrocities of the Holocaust."
Peres told the families they "should be very proud, because there were not many like you."
Only one of the honorees was at the ceremony to receive the award. The rest of the awards were presented to descendants of those being honored.
Over 24,000 people have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. The award has been given to 1,162 Belgians, making Belgium the third most honored country in Western Europe, behind France and Holland.
Over the past year, the Belgian media and government have focused national attention on the country's Holocaust history. At the beginning of 2012, Belgium held the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, previously known as the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. Also, a new museum was inaugurated in the city of Mechelen, from where trains departed to the Auschwitz death camp, and the mayor of Antwerp recognized his city's role in persecuting its Jews during the Holocaust.
Holocaust survivors from around the world attended Tuesday's ceremony along with leaders of Jewish organizations, government ministers, lawmakers and Belgian religious figures.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the lessons of the Holocaust will be taught to future generations and the Righteous Among the Nations showed that even in the darkest times, when lives are in danger, it is possible to say no to cooperation with cruelty.
In October 2002, then Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt issued the country's first official apology for the complicity of government officials in deporting tens of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. In a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the first deportations from Belgium, Verhofstadt said his country must acknowledge those deeds and assume responsibility. "There were too many collaborators in Belgium. We should have the courage to say it, to acknowledge it and to bear it," he said. Verhofstadt's apology came some two months after a committee of historians set up by the government to investigate Belgian collaboration with the Nazis published its report. Six years later, the Belgian government decided to compensate the families of those killed and the Jewish community with a sum of 110 million euros.
Peres was the guest of honor Tuesday evening at an event organized by the Jewish community of Belgium. He is scheduled to meet with leaders of the European Union on Wednesday.