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Despite Critics, Britain Marks First Holocaust Memorial Day

January 29, 2001
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Britain’s first annual Holocaust Memorial Day was noteworthy not just for the politicians, celebrities, religious leaders and survivors who attended a London ceremony, but also for the bickering in the Jewish community over whether the memorial should be held at all. Saturday’s commemoration — on the anniversary of the Jan. 27, 1945, liberation of Auschwitz by Allied forces — included dozens of smaller events across the country.

Elsewhere in Europe, Italy also held its first-ever Holocaust memorial day on Saturday, and commemorations were held in Sweden, Lithuania, Germany and Poland.

The London event, which was 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 event included references to other recent genocides, with an excerpt from the film “The Killing Fields” about the Khmer Rouge dictatorship in Cambodia; a song by Rwandan artist Cecile Kayirebwa; and a reading from the diary of Zlata Filipovic, a Bosnian girl whose memoir has been compared to Anne Frank’s.

It also featured footage of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 from the BBC archives.

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.

Many municipalities held their own commemorations, including Edinburgh, Cardiff, Leeds and many London boroughs.

In addition to broadcasting the London ceremony, the BBC marked the day with a broadcast of the Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List” and a controversial documentary specially produced for the day.

The documentary’s producer described “Battle for the Holocaust” as a political history of the Holocaust since World War II. It examines claims by scholars such as Norman Finkelstein, author of “The Holocaust Industry,” that contemporary Jewish groups have used the memory of the atrocity to further their own agendas.

Also appearing in the film are Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Yet one of the most curious aspects of the commemoration was the debate in the Jewish community — and in the wider British 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.

“I find it troubling that we Jews find it necessary to draw the sympathy of the wider world upon ourselves as we remember our dead,” said Schochet, whose mother was a “hidden child” during the Holocaust. “But more troubling is the apparent need of politicians to embrace this Jewish suffering as if it were their own.”

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.”

“It was very hard, when the government solicited comments two years ago, to say `No thank you, we don’t want it,'” he said.

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.

“Who is this day for?” he asked. “The Jews don’t need it; we have Yom Hashoah. Schools don’t need it; they have Anne Frank Day. The UK doesn’t need it; they have Remembrance Day.”

The general 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.

“A special day to commemorate the Nazis’ 6 million Jewish victims was a bad idea in the first place,” the paper said.

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 very fact that the commemoration generated controversy proved that it serves a purpose, he said.

“The debate about Armenians is a perfect illustration of how the day has created the possibility of discussing events of the 20th century,” he said.

“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.'”

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