Jewish communal leaders and members of the European Parliament gathered last week at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp to commemorate the 49th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 1945.
The ceremony also became an occasion to condemn the rising wave of ultranationalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Europe.
Among the 300 Jewish leaders and parliamentarians attending the Jan. 27 commemoration were Jean Kahn, president of the European Jewish Congress; Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress; Shevach Weiss, the speaker of Israel’s Knesset; and Simone Veil, a senior member of the French Cabinet.
Both Weiss and Veil are survivors of the concentration camps.
A representative of the Gypsy survivors of the Holocaust was also in attendance. During the ceremonies, he expressed his gratitude to the EJC for having remembered his people at the event.
The EJC, which is the coordinating body for 28 Jewish communities in Europe, co-sponsored the event with the European Center for Research and Action on Racism and Anti-Semitism.
In addition to commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz, the ceremonies focused on building awareness of the gradual development of anti-democratic trends in Europe.
As Serge Cwajgenbaum, the secretary general of the EJC described it, the event was meant to be “a seminar in political pedagogy.”
This aim was as least partly reached when those present at the commemoration signed a joint declaration against racism and xenophobia, vowing to fight all type of racist violence.
The text also condemned “extremist movements” in Europe and called for a full application of all existing laws to combat racism and xenophobia.
Among those signing the declaration were Egon Klepsch, president of the European Parliament, and the heads of the Belgian, French, German, Italian, Polish and Israeli parliaments.
Remarks made at the Auschwitz site included expressions of horror at the continuing bloodletting and “ethnic cleansing” taking place in the former Yugoslavia.
A Dutch parliamentarian, Wim Deetman, told reporters, “Xenophobia is spreading its ugly arms around Europe again. We must attack xenophobia at its roots.”
Weiss lashed out at Russian ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and expressed the hope that he would not be permitted to visit the site of the former concentration camp.
The outspoken Zhirinovsky, whose extreme right-wing Liberal Democratic Party made an unexpectedly strong showing in Russian elections in December, has been ejected from or declared persona non grata by several countries.
He plans to visit Poland this week and indicated that he would like to visit Auschwitz.
Kahn, who is the leader of the secular French Jewish community and also presides over the EJC, said a visit by Zhirinovsky to Auschwitz would be “an intolerable provocation.” He said the EJC had asked the Polish authorities to emulate other governments by barring Zhirinovsky.
Weiss, in his comments, spoke of the paradox of opposing movements gaining ascendancy in Europe now.
“On the one hand, you have (the) organization of a democratic Europe,” of which the European Union is the prime example.
But “on the other side there is Zhirinovsky,” Weiss said.
“Under communism, a dictator like (Adolf) Hitler was impossible. But now,” he said, the rise of democracy is allowing for the “legalization of anti- democratic movements.
In a speech delivered the day before the commemoration, Kahn referred to Poland as “the frozen lake of Jewish blood” and called on European leaders to take concerted action to ensure that a Holocaust never occur again.
“Europe must face its memory, and we have to pledge that never again on this European land are we to assist in such a tragedy,” Kahn said.
After visiting Auschwitz, the participants at the commemoration ceremonies went next to the site of the former Birkenau concentration camp, where France’s chief rabbi, Rene Sirat, said Kaddish.
During the visit to Birkenau, Veil, a former inmate there, entered one of the barracks. When she reached one particular place, she said, “This was my corner,” and cried.