International Holocaust Day was marked on Sunday, January 27, as Nazi death camp survivors, elected officials, religious leaders, school children and others commemorated the day with solemn prayers and with repeated warnings to never allow such horrors to occur again.
In what is regarded as the greatest crime in human history, six million Jews were murdered during World War II. Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in southern Poland. Chosen to be the place of the “final solution of the Jewish question in Europe”, up to 1.3 million people – 90% of them Jews – died in the Nazi program of systematic state-sponsored murder at the camp between early 1942 and 1945. In Warsaw, prayers were also held at a monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.
“There is no doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” said Michael Cleere, the civic orator of a service at St George’s Cathedral in south London before a wreath-laying ceremony at the Imperial War Museum.
Quoting the anthropologist Margaret Mead, he continued: “It is the only thing that ever has worked and the only thing that ever will.”
Speaking from his window at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI warned that humanity must always be on guard against a repetition of murderous racism.
`’The memory of this immense tragedy, which above all struck so harshly the Jewish people, must represent for everyone a constant warning so that the horrors of the past are not repeated, so that every form of hatred and racism is overcome, and that respect for, and dignity of, every human person is encouraged,” the German-born pontiff said.
Not all words spoken by dignitaries struck the right tone, however.
On the sidelines of a ceremony in Milan, former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi sparked outrage when he praised Benito Mussolini for `’having done good” despite the Fascist dictator’s anti-Jewish laws. Berlusconi also defended Mussolini for allying himself with Hitler, saying he likely reasoned that it would be better to be on the winning side.
Berlusconi also said Italy “did not have the same responsibilities as Germany” and that Mussolini’s co-operation with Hitler was “not entirely conscious at the start”.
His remarks, apparently intended to cut the ground from under the far right, prompted an outcry from other Italian politicians. Dario Franceschini, the leader of the centre-left Democratic party (PD) in the lower house, said they were a “disgrace and an insult to history and memory”.
Marco Meloni, the PD’s spokesman for institutional affairs, added: “Our republic is based on the struggle against Nazi fascism, and these are intolerable remarks which are incompatible with leadership of democratic political forces.”
In 2005, the United Nations in 2005 designated January 27 as a yearly memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust — 6 million Jews and millions of other victims of Nazi Germany. The day was chosen because it falls on the anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz, the Nazis’ most notorious death camp and a symbol of the evil inflicted across the continent.
“Those who experienced the horrors of the cattle cars, ghettos, and concentration camps have witnessed humanity at its very worst and know too well the pain of losing loved ones to senseless violence,: President Obama said in a statement.
Obama went on to say that like those who resisted the Nazis, “we must commit ourselves to resisting hate and persecution in all its forms. The United States, along with the international community, resolves to stand in the way of any tyrant or dictator who commits crimes against humanity, and stay true to the principle of `Never Again.”’
Speaking before his weekly cabinet session on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “In the perspective of the almost 75 years that have passed since the Holocaust, what has not changed is the desire to annihilate the Jews. What has changed is the ability of the Jews to defend themselves.”
He added that, “Anti-Semitism has not disappeared and – to our regret – neither has the desire to destroy a considerable part of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Boldly lambasting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his persistent denial of the veracity of Holocaust, Netanyahu said, “They exist and they are strong. Holocaust-denial is being spread by one of the world’s major countries, not by a group or by individual countries or by marginal elements, but by Iran which, today, from the UN or any other platform, is the leader of Holocaust-denial while preparing for what they deem to be another Holocaust – the destruction of the state of the Jews.”
As is done every year, Holocaust survivors gathered in the cold Polish winter at Auschwitz — but they shrink in number with each passing year.
This year the key event in the ceremonies was the opening of an exhibition prepared by Russian experts that depicts Soviet suffering at the camp and the Soviet role in liberating it. The opening was presided over by Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of the Russian State Duma.
Several years ago, Polish officials stopped the opening of a previous exhibition, as it was considered offensive because the Russians depicted Poles, Lithuanians and others in Soviet-controlled territory as Soviet citizens. Poles and others protested this label since they were occupied against their will by the Soviets at the start of World War II.
The new exhibition — titled “Tragedy. Courage. Liberation” and prepared by the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow — removes the controversial terminology. It took years of discussions between Polish and Russian experts to finally complete it.
The exhibition narrates the Nazi crimes committed against Soviet POWS at Auschwitz, where they were the fourth largest group of prisoners, and at other sites. And it shows how the Red Army liberated the camp on Jan. 27, 1945, and helped the inmates afterward.
Also Sunday, a ceremony was held in Moscow at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, which opened in November and is Russia’s first major attempt to tell the story of its Jewish community. The museum portrays Russia as a safe and welcoming place for Jews today despite its history of pogroms and discrimination.
In Serbia, survivors and officials gathered at the site of a former concentration camp in the capital, Belgrade, to remember the Jewish, Serb and Roma victims of the Nazi occupation of the country.
Parliament speaker Nebojsa Stefanovic said it is the task of the new generations never to forget the Holocaust crimes, including those against Serbs.
“Many brutal crimes have been left without punishment, redemption and commemoration,” he said. “I want to believe that by remembering the death and suffering of the victims the new generations will be obliged to fight any form of prejudice, racism and chauvinism, anti-Semitism and hatred.”
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