ROME, Jan. 29 (JTA) From Britain to Italy, from Sweden to Germany, Europeans are seeking to make the horrors of the past a lesson for the future in marking the 56th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Saturday’s events ranged from officially mandated Holocaust memorial days in several countries to a low-key gathering of survivors at the site of the former Nazi death camp, which was liberated by the Soviet forces on Jan. 27, 1945.
Official ceremonies in Germany, Italy, Britain and Sweden commemorated the Shoah, but also recalled victims of other persecutions and genocides.
The aim was to make the Holocaust the key to confronting broader issues of hatred and discrimination at a time of resurgent neo-Nazism and a proliferation of Holocaust denial.
In Germany, which since 1996 has made Jan. 27 an official Day of Remembrance for Victims of Nazism, Parliament President Wolfgang Thierse stressed the dangers posed by extremism.
A recent upsurge in hate crimes has raised concern in Germany. According to official figures, there were 840 violent anti-Semitic or anti-foreigner crimes in Germany in 2000, about 100 more than in 1999.
“This isn’t about remembrance without consequences,” Thierse said in a radio broadcast. He called for a “commitment to democracy and against raging right-wing extremism.”
Official ceremonies in Berlin were held at the site of a planned national Holocaust memorial, and flags on public buildings flew at half-mast.
Britain and Italy marked their first official Holocaust memorial days with high-profile ceremonies, broadcasts, performances and other public events in numerous towns and cities.
London’s main memorial ceremony, broadcast live on BBC radio and television, featured a candle-lighting by Prince Charles, speeches by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Orthodox Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and readings by actors Emma Thompson and Sir Ian McKellen.
“What made the Holocaust so frightening was its goal, its unimaginable scale and its wickedness in attempting to use false science to further human destruction,” Blair said in his speech.
“The Holocaust was the greatest act of collective evil the world has ever known,” he said. “It is to reaffirm the triumph of good over that evil that we remember it.”
The victims of persecution or genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia also were recalled at the London event.
Some Muslim leaders stayed away from the event to protest the Israeli- Palestinian violence in the Middle East.
Some Armenians were angered at their exclusion from the program, although a community leader was invited at the last minute.
Some 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by Turks in 1915-1916, in what some regard as the first modern genocide. Under pressure from Turkey, which does not admit the atrocity, the British government initially did not invite any Armenians to participate in the ceremonies.
In Italy, too, remembrance of the Shoah was used as a tool to warn against contemporary evils and draw lessons for today.
Officials placed an emphasis on educational programs, given recent surveys showing that many Italians, particularly young people, are ignorant of fascist Italy’s wartime role in the Holocaust.
In a speech to students in the southern Italian city of Agrigento, the president of the lower house of Parliament, Luciano Violante, referred to slaughters in the Soviet Gulags, in Africa and in Cambodia.
“You have to know how to say no when you are asked to do something that is against democracy, against freedom, against civil and moral values,” he said.
The president of Italy’s Senate, Nicola Mancino, told another audience, “with the passing of time, the worry is becoming strong that a veil of forgetfulness may fall on what happened regarding European racism and the Holocaust.”
Time and timing were crucial factors in establishing official Holocaust memorial days in Italy and Britain and in mandating high-profile observances of the occasion.
Fifty-six years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the Holocaust is passing from the realm of living memory to that of history.
The new commemorations, in fact, are part of a process in which the Shoah has become recognized as part of a broad international experience, not just a Jewish trauma.
A year ago, leaders from nearly four dozen European countries held an unprecedented international forum in Stockholm, where they acknowledged the Shoah as part of their countries’ national histories and embedded this recognition within the parameters of public national discourse.
It is a paradox that this is paralleled by resurgent neo-Nazi extremism and Holocaust denial, the rise of far-right political parties and, in some countries, a glorification of fascist history and wartime fascist leaders.
“The selection of January 27 as a focus for commemoration stresses the centrality of Auschwitz the place where at least 1.5 million people were massacred as a powerful contemporary symbol,” said Italian scholar Francesco Spagnolo, who directs a Jewish music study center in Milan.
“Indeed, beginning January 27, 2001, Auschwitz officially becomes both the no-man’s-land of human history, as well as the arena in which Europe’s future has to be played,” he said.
The commemorations were not without controversy, however.
In Britain, for example, there was debate within the Jewish community and among the wider public about whether the events should take place at all.
Official representatives of the Jewish community welcomed the introduction of an annual commemoration, but there were loud dissenting voices.
Yitzhak Schochet, an Orthodox rabbi from Canada now based in London, questioned why Britain needed to commemorate the Holocaust.
“It seems strange to me that Britain, my adopted homeland, which along with its Allies liberated the death camps and took in tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, should have foisted upon it a National Holocaust Day,” Schochet said.
“Why is this country being asked to shoulder guilt for the Holocaust, which belongs elsewhere?” he asked.
Politicians who created the holiday may have had cynical motives, Schochet said.
Jonathan Romain, a leading Reform rabbi, said last week he initially had opposed a national Holocaust memorial day, but “now that it’s going ahead, I reluctantly support it.”
But Romain, like Schochet, said he thought the day was wrongly named.
“It should have a more inclusive name,” he said. “If it is to be celebrated by the wider world, it shouldn’t be rooted in one particular group’s tragedy.
The broader British public also joined the debate about what, exactly, the day commemorates.
The right-wing Daily Telegraph newspaper, among the largest in Britain, vociferously condemned the commemorations.
It dismissed the Labor Government’s rationale for the event, saying that using it to promote political tolerance, ethnic inclusivity and cultural diversity “is to belittle the enormity of what happened, to help bolster Labor’s spurious claim that Britain is riddled with racism.”
But Holocaust Memorial Day also had its defenders, including David Cesarani, professor of modern Jewish history at Southampton University and a member of the Holocaust Memorial Day steering group.
“The day recognizes that Britain is a country made up of ethnic and faith groups, most of whom are here because they came as refugees,” Cesarani said. “Britain is saying ‘Your history is part of our history.’ “
(JTA correspondent Richard Allen Greene in London contributed to this report.)