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Millions Pay Respect To Holocaust Victims

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JERUSALEM (AP) _ Sirens sounded across Israel Monday morning, bringing life to a standstill as millions of Israelis observed a moment of silence to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

The two-minute siren at 10 a.m. is an annual tradition marking Israel's Holocaust remembrance day, which began Sunday evening and ends at sundown Monday. Pedestrians froze in their tracks, buses stopped on busy streets, and cars on major highways pulled over as the country paused to pay respect to the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis.

All day, television stations devoted their broadcasts to historical documentaries and movies, and radio stations played somber music and interviews with survivors. Schools held memorial services, places of entertainment were shut down and the Israeli flag was waved at half mast.

At Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial and museum, the nation's leaders gathered along with Holocaust survivors for the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Warsaw Ghetto Square. Later, ordinary Israelis flocked to the museum's hall of remembrance to recite names of victims. Other ceremonies, prayers and music performances were planned.

In Poland, thousands of Jews from around the world, many draped in blue-and-white Israeli flags, gathered at Auschwitz.

About 8,000 people walked amid the barracks at the former Nazi death camp ahead of the annual March of the Living, a two-mile walk from the notorious Auschwitz wrought-iron gates, reading ``Arbeit Macht Frei,'' or ``Work Sets You Free,'' to the death camp of Birkenau, where most of the gas chambers were located.

``We are all very proud to walk with our flags,'' said Zohar Cohen, a 16-year-old visiting from Ashkelon, Israel. ``Especially in this place in Poland, where the Germans tried to exterminate all Jews.''

The U.S. military said Monday that 34 Jews who died serving as slave laborers for the Nazis were honored with the dedication of gravestones in a ceremony at the U.S. Army airfield in Germany where their mass grave was recently discovered.

More than 200 mourners were on hand for Sunday's ceremony to dedicate the gravestones to the anonymous victims of the Echterdingen concentration camp that were discovered in September 2005 during construction at the airfield.

At Sunday night's opening ceremony at Yad Vashem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert noted that Israel celebrates its 59th independence day next week.

``The renewal of the Jewish people, its shaking off the ashes of the Holocaust for a new life and national rebirth in its historic birthplace, is the pinnacle of its victory,'' he said.

But the plight of the Holocaust survivors in Israel has been difficult. Many arrived directly from Europe to fight in the Jewish state's war of independence in 1948, and have since struggled to cope with the physical and emotional burdens of World War II.

Recent data reveals that about a third of the remaining Holocaust survivors in Israel live under the poverty line, drawing widespread outrage.

``We must never accept a reality in which even one of the Holocaust survivors in Israel is living without dignity,'' Acting President Dalia Itzik said in a speech Sunday.

The government announced it was establishing a commission to solve the matter, but hundreds gathered in front of parliament Monday to protest what they called the state's neglect of survivors.

With the passing years fewer and fewer survivors remain. There are some 250,000 survivors in Israel, about half of the worldwide total. Nearly 10 percent of the aging population dies each year.

In Israel, 2,000 die each month, a rate of 65 daily, according to experts cited in Israeli newspapers Monday.

With each passing day, the world loses its last live voices who can directly attest to the horrors of the Holocaust and confront a growing tide of worldwide Holocaust denial.

To this purpose, Yad Vashem has led a vigorous campaign in recent years to complete its database of names of Holocaust victims, encouraging survivors to come forth and fill out pages of testimony for those murdered, before their names and stories are lost forever.

Even so, Yad Vashem has only managed to gather just 3.1 million names. In the museum's vast Hall of Names, half the folders remain empty.

Reading from her list of names on Monday, Michal Beer halted to choke back the tears.

The 78-year-old survivor of the Terezin concentration camp has submitted more pages of testimony than anyone else, documenting the lives of 450 friends and relatives, including her father and almost all the Jews in her hometown of Prostejov, in the Czech Republic.

``I feel as if a great weight has lifted from my heart,'' she said of the pages of testimony. ``No one would have remembered them, if I hadn't done this, who would have? Soon, I will no longer be around. We really are the last ones.''
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