Yesterday the world marked International Holocaust Memorial Day, amid rising hatred once again.
In Warsaw, Poland, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid his respects in a solemn ceremony at a memorial to the Jews who died revolting against German forces in the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.
Tillerson trailed two uniformed Polish military officers and readjusted a wreath underneath the monument, a hulking structure located in what was once the Warsaw Ghetto.
The head of Warsaw’s Jewish community read a prayer and Tillerson made brief remarks about the importance of not forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust.
“On this occasion it reminds us that we can never, we can never, be indifferent to the face of evil,” Tillerson said.
“The western alliance which emerged from World War II has committed itself to the assuring the security of all, that this would never happen again,” he said. “As we mark this day in solemn remembrance, let us repeat the words of our own commitment: Never again. Never again.”
His words came amid signs in Europe and beyond that ultra-nationalism and extreme right-wing groups are on the rise.
In Germany and Austria, the nations that perpetrated the killing of 6 million Jews and millions of others during World War II, far-right parties with their roots in the Nazi era are gaining strength. The anti-migrant, anti-Muslim AfD party won seats in the German parliament for the first time last year, while in Austria the nationalist, anti-migrant Freedom Party is in the government.
Both parties have had issues with members making anti-Semitic remarks.
In Europe, that support is partially a backlash to the large influx of mostly Muslim migrants to Europe that peaked in 2015.
Some of those migrants, especially from Arab countries, have brought their own brand of anti-Semitism with them.
In Germany, many Jews have reported feeling threatened by anti-Semitism—both from native far-right groups and from Arabs—and Jewish institutions across the country have increased security.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel marked the day by addressing the rising anti-Semitism in her weekly Saturday podcast.
She said that schools, which already teach about the country’s Nazi past, need to work harder at that especially so immigrant students from Arab countries will not “exercise anti-Semitism.”
She called it “incomprehensible and a disgrace that no Jewish institution can exist without police security—whether it is a school, a kindergarten or a synagogue.”
As is so often is the case, the day didn’t pass without controversies.
The biggest scandal was the announcement by the Polish government that they are passing a law to criminalize Poland criminalizes the term “Polish death camps”:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday called for an urgent meeting between Israeli diplomats in Poland and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to express his “strong opposition” to a bill passed on Friday by the lower house of the Polish parliament that would criminalize blaming Poles for Holocaust crimes committed on Polish soil.
In a Hebrew post on social media on Saturday evening, Netanyahu called the Polish bill “baseless” and said “history cannot be re-written.”
The new bill prescribes criminal proceedings for individuals or organizations who allegedly defame the “Polish nation” by assigning guilt or complicity to Poles for Holocaust crimes committed on Polish soil. Using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to the killing sites Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II may be punishable by three years in prison or a fine, according to the law. The bill is partly a response to cases in recent years of foreign media using “Polish death camps” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi-run camps.
The bill also makes it illegal to “deliberately reduce the responsibility of the ‘true culprits’ of these crimes,” in reference to the murder of around 100,000 Poles by units in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the World War II.
A Twitter war erupted between Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, himself the son of Holocaust survivor Tommy Lapid, and the Polish Embassy in Israel:
The Polish bill was blasted by a host of Israeli politicians including Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan, Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz, and the head of the Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh who said the legislation was “embarrassing and dangerous.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on the Polish government to amend the bill before it moves forward. The legislation still needs approval from Poland’s Senate and president.
“No law can change the historical truth,” the ministry said in a statement earlier.
Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that a possible recall of the Israeli ambassador to Poland for consultations was “not off the table.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, noting that exactly 73 years had passed since the Auschwitz death camp on Polish soil was liberated, cited the words of a former Polish president about how history could not be faked and the truth could not be hidden.
“The Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the entire world must ensure that the Holocaust is recognized for its horrors and atrocities,” Rivlin said. “Also among the Polish people, there were those who aided the Nazis in their crimes. Every crime, every offense, must be condemned. They must be examined and revealed.”
Poland’s deputy justice minister Patryk Jaki said in a speech before the lower house on Friday “Non-governmental organizations indicate that every other day the phrase ‘Polish death camps’ is used around the world. In other words, German Nazi crimes are attributed to Poles.”
“And so far the Polish state has not been able to effectively fight these types of insults to the Polish nation,” he added, supporting the bill.
The Poles had the chutzpah to compare their almost Holocaust denying bill to Israel’s NGO’s bill:
Jaki likened the move to Israel’s passage in 2016 of the controversial “NGOs bill” which requires more transparency by foreign-funded NGOs, a majority of them critical of Israel. Critics had called the law undemocratic and an assault on free speech.
“I don’t know why Poland would have more difficulty acting in an efficient manner like Israel does, why it should have less effective tools than Israel,” he told parliament.
While the law contains a provision excluding scholarly or academic works, opponents still see a danger.
They especially worry it could be used to stifle research and debate on topics that are anathema to Poland’s nationalistic authorities, particularly the painful issue of Poles who blackmailed Jews or denounced them to the Nazis during the war.
Holocaust researchers have collected ample evidence of Polish villagers who murdered Jews fleeing the Nazis. According to one scholar at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, of the 160,000-250,000 Jews who escaped and sought help from fellow Poles, about 10 percent to 20 percent survived. The rest were rejected, informed upon or killed by rural Poles, according to the Tel Aviv University scholar, Havi Dreifuss.
The memorial issued a statement Saturday night opposing the Polish legislation and trying to put into historical context the “complex truth” regarding the Polish population’s attitude toward its Jews.
“There is no doubt that the term ‘Polish death camps’ is a historical misrepresentation,” the Yad Vashem memorial said. “However, restrictions on statements by scholars and others regarding the Polish people’s direct or indirect complicity with the crimes committed on their land during the Holocaust are a serious distortion.”
Matt Lebovic in the Times of Israel writes about the inevitable politicization of International Holocaust Memorial Day:
With last year’s tribute notable for what was not said, activists around the world are drawing battle-lines in anticipation of this Saturday’s observance. In a climate of far-right political parties gaining sway across Europe, leaders of Austria’s tiny Jewish community said they will not attend the parliament’s Shoah observance because legislators of the Freedom Party are set to participate. Founded by a former Nazi SS officer in 1956, the party is opposed to anti-Nazi legislation and has sparked protests among Austrians alarmed by its nationalist agenda.
“If there will be ministers there from the Freedom Party, and I’m sure there will be, I will not be able to shake their hands, so the Jewish community will not attend,” said Oskar Deutsch, president of Vienna’s Jewish community, in an interview last week.
Austria has punished very few Nazi perpetrators compared to Germany and other countries, and there is not a strong culture of “memory work” with regards to the past, as in Germany. The Freedom Party has been in power before, and the Jewish community has officially maintained a no-contact policy with it for 17 years.
Across the pond in South Carolina, Saturday’s commemoration has been declared the deadline to pass a bill that would codify a universal definition of anti-Semitism among state institutions. For several weeks, Governor Henry McMaster has been calling on the senate to pass the codification measure before January 27. The bill would make South Carolina the first state to define anti-Semitism as per the US State Department’s guidelines, which include Holocaust denial and the rejection of Israel’s right to exist among forms of anti-Semitic expression.
Since the first commemoration in 2005, the United Nations has given each International Holocaust Remembrance Day an educational theme. Past frameworks include the plight of children in the Shoah, the persecution of Roma and Sinti victims, and the Nazi regime’s efforts to murder individuals with physical or mental disabilities.
This year, the theme of “shared responsibility” for remembering the genocide was chosen to frame activities, including a focus on gathering accounts from “the last survivors.” Last Thursday at UN headquarters in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opened an exhibition on the genocide as it unfolded in Soviet territories, including what has been called “the Holocaust by bullets.”
We must also not forget the heroes of the Holocaust era:
Next month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will unveil a memorial at the foreign ministry in honor of 36 “righteous diplomats” who helped rescue Jews during the war. With many of these rescuers’ accounts unknown for decades, the edifice’s placement outside the ministry in Jerusalem is meant to remind diplomats that “regulations do not supply all moral answers to moral dilemmas,” as said by project organizer Ran Yaakoby.
But a welcome and interesting development emerged from this important day:
In a relatively new trend, B’nai B’rith International has been highlighting Jews who acted as rescuers for other Jews during the Shoah. A discussion about this usually ignored sub-set of rescuers will be held at the United Nations on January 31. Since 2011, B’nai B’rith’s has awarded citations to more than 170 Jewish rescuers who took action from the Netherlands to Lithuania.
For example, this Italian Jewish man received citation for saving hundreds of Jews:
B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jews who Rescued Fellow Jews During the Holocaust conferred this week in Cuneo (Italy) a Jewish Rescuers Citation upon Enzo Cavaglion,98, for saving the lives of hundreds Jewish refugees in northern Italy during the German occupation.
Enzo, who was moved to tears, said he is proud and excited to receive the Jewish Rescuers Citation.
Enzo Cavaglion was one of the 14 founding members of the partisan group “Italia Libera” (Free Italy), established on Sept. 12, 1943 — the same day that Cuneo was occupied by the German First SS Panzer Division. They ensconced themselves in the sanctuary of the Madonna del Colletto, 18 kilometers to the west of Cuneo. Enzo and his younger brother, Riccardo Cavaglion, stayed with the group until October 1943, when they had to leave to help their own families escape arrest in Cuneo.
In addition to the combat they waged against the Germans and Italian Fascists, Enzo and Riccardo also helped Jews who sought refuge in villages around Cuneo. More than 1,000 Jews living in the remote Italian-occupied French Alpine village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie fled in the face of the German army that invaded the area following the announcement on Sept. 8 1943 of the armistice signed between Italy and the Allies.
Men, women, children, the elderly and disabled scaled the Maritime Alps over the international border into Italy in a harrowing ordeal, only to find the Germans already roaming the area. About 300 people were captured and sent to Auschwitz. The remaining 700 found refuge among the welcoming local peasant population. Enzo and Riccardo found hiding places for them, furnished them with the necessary documents and hid them in the mountains in order to evade the Nazis. Survivor Harry Burger credited Enzo and Riccardo with saving his life and his mother’s life by warning them that the Nazis were hunting for them. Enzo performed all of these activities despite the additional danger he faced as a result.
It is astonishing to learn that people do not realize that Jews helped fellow Jews during the Shoah. What did they think they did??
Since its establishment in 2011, the Jewish Rescuers Citation has been presented in an effort to correct the public misconception that Jews did not rescue fellow Jews during the Holocaust. To date nearly 200 heroes have been honored for rescue activities in Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Holland and now Italy.
We must never forget and always remember, so that history cannot be denied and the victims made victims once more.
As I always do on these days of commemoration, I invite readers to visit my pages on my family history during the Shoah.