Europeans commemorated the Holocaust on Monday, the 58th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, amid widespread Jewish concern about rising anti-Israel bias and resurgent anti-Semitism across the continent.
Official Holocaust memorial days in Germany, Italy, Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Estonia featured hundreds of vigils, performances, exhibitions and other public events honoring the 6 million Jews — and others — who were murdered during the Holocaust.
Holocaust survivors recounted their experiences on the airwaves, in print and in public meetings, and special educational programs were held for schoolchildren.
The aim of the programs was to make knowledge and memory of the Holocaust the key to confronting broader issues of hatred, discrimination and genocide today.
In Britain, for example, where the theme of events was “Children and the Holocaust,” Home Secretary David Blunkett called Holocaust Memorial Day “a very important day for the whole nation,” one that “enables us — both as individuals and as a society — to reflect on the Holocaust and its contemporary relevance for us.”
The theme of children stresses the importance of educating young people about the Holocaust and other atrocities, to “remind us of what can happen if we do not continue to be vigilant in preventing the spread of racism and intolerance,” Blunkett said.
Jews have slammed European governments during the past two years for a lack of vigilance concerning anti-Semitic bias.
They have sharply criticized authorities for not cracking down enough on anti-Semitic attacks carried out both by right-wing extremists and by Arabs protesting Israeli military retaliation for Palestinian terrorism.
European Jews have decried a pro-Palestinian bias in the media, and efforts in some countries to boycott Israeli products and cut cultural and intellectual ties with the Jewish state.
In Paris on Saturday, Roger Cukierman, head of the CRIF umbrella group of secular Jewish organizations in France, caused a furor by charging that leftist criticism of Israeli policy had crossed the line into a “politically correct” form of anti-Semitism.
In this, he implied, leftists were linked in a pernicious alliance of Jew-hatred with neo-Nazis and militant environmentalists.
“France is neither racist nor anti-Semitic. But some of our fellow countrymen on the far right and far left are,” Cukierman said at the annual CRIF dinner.
In Italy, Jewish commentator Giorgio Israel warned that commemorations that did not go beyond memorializing the past could lose their meaning.
Holocaust memorial days, he wrote, “are crowded with hundreds of events and initiatives that all too often drip with empty and senseless rhetoric; on the other hand, total silence surrounds the spread of manifestations, even physical manifestations, of anti-Semitism.”
Holocaust Memorial Day had a particularly high profile in Italy. Emphasis was placed on educational programs. Events sponsored by state, local, and Jewish bodies took place throughout the country.
More than 20,000 people took part in a commemorative march in Milan, and Italy’s president awarded the national Order of Merit to seven people who either survived the Holocaust or helped save Jews.
Radio and television broadcast hours of special programs, and newspapers and magazines published special sections.
Bice Milliau, director of the Rome Jewish Cultural Center, told JTA that there were more than 40 events in Rome alone, ranging from a special conference for several thousand high school students to a concert by Israeli musicians at a train station from which Roman Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
“From the educational point of view, it is extremely important,” she said. “More than 100 schools are taking part in events, and some schools had to be turned away, as there wasn’t enough room to include their students.”
In Germany, which has marked an official Day of Remembrance for Victims of Nazism on Jan. 27 since 1996, the centerpiece of this year’s events was a political move opening a new chapter between German Jews and the state.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, signed a landmark agreement giving Germany’s main Jewish organization the same legal status as the country’s main Catholic and Lutheran churches.
“Remembering the Holocaust is thus bound up with a declaration in favor of a good and secure future for Jews in Germany,” Schroeder said at the signing ceremony.
Thanks to the influx of tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Germany today has about 100,000 Jews — and the only visibly growing Jewish community in Europe.
The accord triples the Central Council’s annual funding from the government to $3.2 million, and establishes the first legal partnership between the Jewish community and the German government since World War II.
Officially mandated, national Holocaust memorial day commemorations are a relatively recent phenomenon in Europe. They are separate from the Yom Hashoah Holocaust memorial day celebrated by Israel and the Jewish people.
Great Britain, Italy and Sweden marked their first official Holocaust memorial days on Jan. 27 in 2001, and Estonia decided to adopt the date last year. Denmark, too, marked its first official Auschwitz Day this year.
Several other countries have chosen different dates as national remembrance days, reflecting local Holocaust events.
The new commemorations are part of a process through which the Holocaust has become recognized as part of the human experience, and not solely as a Jewish trauma.
In 2000, leaders from nearly four dozen European countries held an international forum on the Holocaust in Stockholm, where they acknowledged the Holocaust as part of their countries’ national histories.
Convened by the Swedish government, the conference also set out to support Holocaust education and research to better equip governments to combat racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.