Israeli President Isaac Herzog has recalled his Irish-born father’s role in liberating Nazi death camps during the second World War in an address marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place on Friday.
Born in Belfast in 1918 and raised in Dublin, Chaim Herzog was an ardent Zionist and an Irish nationalist, and was the son of the chief rabbi of Ireland – a man known as the “Sinn Féin Rabbi” for his republican beliefs and reputed fluent Irish.
Growing up, Herzog attended the Adelaide Road synagogue in central Dublin and went to school at Wesley College, becoming the Irish youth boxing bantamweight champion.
In an address to the European Parliament on Thursday, his son Isaac Herzog described his father’s experience in the second World War, when he served as an officer in the British Army.
“He was born in Ireland. He had the privilege of landing at Normandy, crossed the Rhine, and took part in the liberation of the Netherlands, Belgium and the north of Germany,” Mr Herzog told MEPs.
“I will never forget how he described to me the horrors that unfolded before his eyes as one of the first liberators of the death camps, including Bergen-Belsen. The human skeletons in the striped pyjamas, the hell on earth, the stench, the heart of darkness.”
The elder Herzog went on to join the Haganah Zionist paramilitary organisation and to rise to the rank of major general in the Israeli army, later becoming president himself.
The mass extermination of one third of the world’s Jewish population by the Nazi regime tore out “Europe’s own flesh and blood”, the Israeli president told the European Parliament.
“Anti-Semitism, like an auto-immune disease, made Europe attack part of its own DNA, and a shared story going back millennia was erased as though it had never existed,” he said.
He recalled the efforts to hunt down the Jewish population of the remote Greek island of Leros, which was in fact only one man, named Daniel Rachamim, who asked of his capture “Why did you take a single person, why go through the trouble?” .
This one incident “tells the story of the entire Holocaust,” the president continued. “The story of the monstrous, deranged obsession to totally exterminate a nation with roots stretching deep into history, such an inseparable and essential part of Europe: the Jewish people,” he said. “[Daniel Rachamim] did not know that for the Nazis, his mere existence was a crime punishable by death.”
He urged European politicians not to “stand by”, warning of the rise of anti-Semitic discourse in Western countries “fuelled” by online forums.
“You must read the warning signs, detect the symptoms of the pandemic of anti-Semitism, and fight it at all costs. You must ensure that every Jew wanting to live a full Jewish life in your countries may do so safely and fearlessly,” he told the MEPs.