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European Countries Address Racism As They Commemorate the Holocaust

Several European countries are using their first-ever Holocaust commemorations to confront broader issues of hatred and discrimination.

The newly established commemorations marking the Jan. 27 anniversary of the 1945 Allied liberation of Auschwitz – observed in Italy, Great Britain, Germany and Sweden – are also focusing on other victims of persecution at a time of resurgent neo-Nazi extremism and a proliferation of Holocaust denial.

“This new commemoration does mean that the fact of the Shoah itself may be diluted,” said a source involved in European Jewish policymaking.

“Still, if it is to have meaning for the future, you have to look at the whole issue of genocide.” Andrew Dismore, a British legislator, was explicit about the broader motives for his nation’s commemoration.

“One of the primary reasons for introducing Holocaust Memorial Day is to offer everyone the opportunity to reflect on the Holocaust and more recent crimes against humanity,” he said. “It will promote a society that opposes racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination.”

“The universal implications of the Holocaust make this day relevant to all of us – if we had learned the lessons from the Holocaust, would genocide be a reality today?”

In Italy – which was Nazi Germany’s first ally and where the fascist government imposed strict anti-Jewish laws in 1938 – the Day of Memory will be marked with concerts, exhibitions, lectures and commemorative ceremonies sponsored by state, civic and Jewish organizations.

Numerous articles about the commemoration have appeared, and one leading newsweekly announced it would distribute a video of a film about Italian Holocaust victims with this week’s issue of the magazine.

“I have had an avalanche of phone calls, faxes and e-mails from towns and cities wanting me to help them find a klezmer group to play at such events,” said Francesco Spagnolo, who directs a study center for Jewish music in Milan.

Officials are giving a special emphasis to educational events and programs in schools – given recent surveys indicating that young people are often ignorant about the Holocaust and Italy’s wartime fascist history.

Last summer, after several years of debate and political pressure brought by liberal politicians, the Italian government passed a law instituting the Day of Memory.

The Italian Jewish community originally had wanted the memorial day to be observed on Oct. 16, the date on which the Nazis deported more than 1,000 Jews from Rome in 1943.

Others – also seeking a more local meaning to the date commemorations are held – had hoped that the Day of Memory would be linked to the anniversary of fascist Italy’s imposition of racist laws.

“Somehow, I would rather hear a concert of Italian liturgical music rather than East European klezmer to mark this date here in Italy,” said one Jew who wanted to remain anonymous. Some countries did choose dates with local significance for their Holocaust commemorations.

Slovakia, for example, last year chose Sept. 9, the anniversary of the passage of anti-Semitic legislation. Rudi Assuntino – who as part of the commemorations in Rome will present a concert of songs by Mordechai Gebirtig, a Yiddish poet killed in the Krakow ghetto in 1942 – said that the meaning of the Jan. 27 commemoration is bound to spread beyond the Holocaust.

“I think it will become a Day of Memory around the world,” he said. “It makes the Shoah the archetype of humanity’s evil. It doesn’t banalize the Shoah by doing so – it exalts it.”

In Britain, Stephen Smith, founder and director of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Center, agreed.

“The Holocaust was unique in many respects, but its message is universal,” he wrote in the London Jewish Chronicle. “If those who know so intimately the tragedy of genocide do not lead the way in making that message clear to all people everywhere, how can we expect it to be heeded?”

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