World leaders commemorate Auschwitz anniversary, Netanyahu slams Iran

Dozens of world leaders gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, amid a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, Prince Charles, Emmanuel Macron among international guests

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the World Holocaust Forum marking 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz, at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem. (Abir Sultan/Pool via Reuters)

Dozens of world leaders gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, amid a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States.

Israel has hailed the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem memorial centre as the biggest international gathering in its history.

More than one million people, most of them Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp during the Second World War. Overall, some six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

The high-profile guest list for Thursday's commemoration includes Britain's Prince Charles, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence.

Canada sent a delegation led by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette greets Israel's President Reuven Rivlin at his residence on Wednesday, ahead of the ceremony. Payette is Canada's official representative at the Auschwitz commemoration event in Jerusalem. (Haim Zach/Israel Government Press Office)

Speeches at Yad Vashem focused on the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust as well as on the recent rise in anti-Semitism rhetoric and attacks worldwide, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu singling out Iran.

"At the core of Israel's establishment is the command — there will not be another Holocaust. As prime minister of Israel, that is my greatest commitment," Netanyahu said in his address.

Netanyahu then lashed out at Iran, whose nuclear ambitions he says are aimed at building atomic weapons with the aim of destroying Israel. Tehran denies it is seeking nuclear arms.

"I am concerned that we have yet to see a unified and resolute stance against the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet — a regime that openly seeks to develop nuclear weapons and annihilate the one and only Jewish state," Netanyahu said, praising the U.S. administration for confronting Iran.

Warning of the "dark shadow of anti-Semitism," Macron met French survivors of the Holocaust at a memorial near Jerusalem to some 76,000 Jews arrested in France during the Second World War and transported to death camps such as Auschwitz, where most died.

From left, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain's Prince Charles are shown at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Prince Charles paid homage to his grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg and Greece, the mother-in-law of Queen Elizabeth. The Prince of Wales said the Royal Family took great pride in Israel's recognition of Alice's heroism in the Holocaust.

"I have long drawn inspiration from the selfless actions of my dear grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, who in 1943 in Nazi-occupied Athens, saved a Jewish family by taking them into her home and hiding them," the prince said.

"My grandmother, who is buried on the Mount of Olives, has a tree planted in her name here at Yad Vashem and is counted as one of the Righteous Among the Nations … a fact which gives me and my family immense pride."

A devout Christian, Alice died in London in 1969 and had asked to be buried in Jerusalem, next to her aunt, who like Alice had become a nun and founded a convent.

'I bow in deepest sorrow'

Steinmeier, meanwhile, was the first ever German president to deliver a speech at Yad Vashem. 

"I bow in deepest sorrow," Steinmeier said. "The mass murder of six million Jews, the worst crime in the history of humanity, it was committed by my countrymen."

With anti-Semitic attacks increasing in frequency in Germany and across Europe, Steinmeier, 64, voiced regret that his country was still dealing with the bigotry and hatred that led to the Holocaust.

"I wish I could say that we Germans have learnt from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading," Steinmeier said.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lays a wreath at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on Thursday. Steinmeier expressed regret that anti-Semitic acts continue in Germany. (Ronen Zvulun/AFP via Getty Images)

A global survey by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League in November found that global anti-Semitic attitudes had increased, and significantly so in Eastern and Central Europe. It found that large percentages of people in many European countries think Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

"We must be prepared to confront and expose the vile tide of anti-Semitism that is fuelling hate and violence all across the world and we must stand together," Pence told the audience of world leaders.

Poland stays away

The president of Poland, where the death camp was built by the Nazi German occupiers during the war, is not attending the ceremony due to rankling disputes with both Russia and Israel.

Polish President Andrzej Duda turned down an invitation to the conference, expressing dissatisfaction that representatives of Russia, France, Britain, the United States and Germany would speak, while Poland was told it would not be allowed to.

Russian President Vladimir Putin cut the ribbon to unveil the Memorial Candle monument in Jerusalem to commemorate the people of Leningrad during the Nazi siege on the city during the Second World War. (Amit Shabi/AFP via Getty Images)

Polish leaders have also been angered by comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month suggesting Poland shared responsibility for the war. Poland, which was invaded first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet forces in September 1939, sees itself as a major victim of the war, in which it lost a fifth of its population.

Later on Thursday, Putin criticized those who try to rewrite history, though he made no reference to Poland, while unveiling a monument to the residents and defenders of Nazi-besieged Leningrad, Russia's second city, now renamed St. Petersburg.

"Here, as in Russia, people are concerned, alarmed and outraged by attempts to deny the Holocaust and to revise the results of World War Two, to whitewash murderers and criminals," Putin said.

Poland will host its own ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on Jan. 27, as it does every year.

With files from CBC News