Share story

OSWIECIM, Poland — Standing in front of a former prisoner block at the infamous Auschwitz death camp, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the world Thursday of not doing enough to stop the Holocaust and said Israel can only rely on itself to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

The scathing speech marked the most dramatic point of a two-day visit to Poland, a trip that comes as Netanyahu urges the world to put forth a credible military threat against Iran and its burgeoning nuclear program.

Netanyahu has long linked the Holocaust with Iranian threats toward Israel and has faced disapproval for doing so. In defiance of his critics, he chose Auschwitz as the venue for his latest salvo because of its symbolic significance as the site of some of the worst crimes ever committed against the Jewish people.

Though he never mentioned Iran by name, he suggested Israel faces dangers that parallel the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany, using harsher language than he usually does.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“The leaders of the Allies knew about the Holocaust in real time. They understood exactly what was happening in the death camps. They were asked to act, they could have acted and they did not,” he said, in front of a red brick building where he inaugurated a new pavilion to educate visitors.

“For us Jews, the lesson is clear. 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. “From here, the place that attests to the desire to destroy our people, I, as prime minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, tell the nations of the world: the state of Israel will do whatever is necessary to prevent another Holocaust.”

Israel considers Iran its greatest threat because of its support of Islamic extremist groups, its questioning of the Holocaust, its arsenal of long-range missiles and primarily its advanced nuclear program. Iran insists its uranium-enrichment program has only peaceful goals.

Auschwitz remains the most vivid symbol of the cruelty of Nazi Germany’s genocide of World War II. More than 1.1 million Jews died in Auschwitz and the adjacent Birkenau death camp in gas chambers or from starvation, disease and forced labor.

The new $8 million exhibit in Block 27, “Shoah,” presents Auschwitz in the larger context of the Nazis’ systematic attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews.

Curated by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, the exhibit aims to provide a backdrop to the Holocaust for a first-time visitor, presenting the racist Nazi ideology that led to the killings and the struggles of the victims and those who survived.

“We felt it our duty to recount the comprehensive story of the Shoah, the story of the Jews that were persecuted and murdered, here and across Europe, only because they were Jews,” said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev.

To highlight the extent of the carnage, Yad Vashem displayed the names of Holocaust victims it has painstakingly gathered over the years in a massive collection of pages stretching 14 yards long. Among the list, Netanyahu found the name of Yehudit Hun, the twin sister of his late father-in-law, killed in Bilgoraj, in southeastern Poland.

“If there are Holocaust deniers, have them come to Block 27 and go over the names, one at a time,” he said, in a clear reference to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who questions the extent of the Holocaust. “There are those who say that the approach to Jews in the world has changed since the Holocaust. And I say what has really changed?”

Yaacov Silberstein, 88, an Auschwitz survivor who returned for Thursday’s ceremony, remembered the camp where he endured three years of horror between 1942-45.

“There didn’t use to be grass here. If there had been we would have eaten it since there was nothing else to eat,” he said aboard the prime minister’s plane back to Israel.

On his arm, the number 68743 remained inked. “How did I stay alive there? It was a gift from the heavens,” he said. “We must never let what happened here be forgotten.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.