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At Start Of 75th Anniversary Of Auschwitz Liberation, Israeli President Says Anti-Semitism 'Malignant'

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks during the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem on January 23.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has thanked world leaders for expressing their "solidarity with the Jewish people" by attending the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem that marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Speaking on January 23 at the start of the ceremony, Rivlin said that "anti-Semitism does not stop with the Jews," and called anti-Semitism and racism a "malignant disease." He added that "no democracy is immune."

The event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial comes amid a spike in anti-Jewish violence in Europe and around the world.

More than 1 million people, most of them Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during Nazi Germany's wartime occupation of Poland. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

Rivlin cited a first-hand account by a Red Army soldier who had seen the horrors of the Auschwitz death camp. "The Earth is sighing with the atrocities that those victims suffered," Rivlin quoted the soldier's words.

"In the name of the Jewish people... thank you for your solidarity," he told the audience. "Thank you for your commitment to the memory of the Holocaust, to the citizens of the world who believe in freedom and the dignity of man."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain's Prince Charles, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and the presidents of Germany, Italy, and Austria were among the more than 40 dignitaries attending the World Holocaust Forum, the largest-ever gathering focused on commemorating the Holocaust and combating modern-day anti-Semitism.

However, Polish President Andrzej Duda refused to attend, voicing dissatisfaction that he hadn't been allowed to address the gathering while representatives of Russia, France, Britain, the United States, and Germany would deliver speeches.

Israeli organizers said only the four World War II allies, and Germany, would speak at the event.

Poland, which has also been upset by comments made by Putin last month suggesting Poland shared responsibility for the war, will host its own commemorative event at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum south of the country on January 27.

Speaking at Yad Vashem, Putin spoke out against views of World War II that are still being used to fuel modern political rivalries.

"Unfortunately the memory of this war, its lessons, and aftermath are ever more often becoming objects of political competition," he said.

In his speech, Macron told world leaders that anti-Semitism is "once again rearing its violent head" and is not only a problem for Jews.

He said anti-Semitism is "first and foremost the problem of others."

"In our history, anti-Semitism always preceded the weakening of democracy," the French leader added.

Ahead of the ceremony, Putin inaugurated a monument in the heart of Jerusalem -- named the Memorial Candle -- commemorating the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad. Estimates of casualties vary, but some sources state that 1 million residents of the Russian city died from hunger, disease, exposure, and shelling.

"The blockade [of Leningrad] and the Holocaust are things that can't be compared to anything else," Putin said.

At a reception he hosted on the eve of the gathering, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called on world leaders to “leave history for the historians."

"The role of political leaders, of all of us, is to shape the future," Rivlin said.

"I hope and pray...that the leaders of the world will stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, and extremism, in defending democracy and democratic values. This is our challenge. This is our choice," he said.

In advance of the forum, statements from world leaders sending delegations to Jerusalem projected a commitment to quelling a climate some said was reminiscent of that before World War II.

“I express my fervent hope that by continued vigilance and positive education, the iniquities perpetrated during one of the darkest periods in our history will be eliminated from the face of the earth,” Pope Francis wrote.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically mentioned “the scourge of anti-Semitism and hatred that is becoming all too common once again.”

“The murder of 6 million Jews by the brutal and anti-Semitic Nazi regime started with a slow erosion of rights, and the normalization of discrimination,” he wrote. “We cannot permit the passage of time to diminish our resolve never to allow such horrors to happen again."

The event marks one of the largest political gatherings in Israeli history. More than 10,000 police officers were deployed in Jerusalem while major highways and large parts of the city were shut down ahead of the event.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, dpa, and AFP
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