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Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration takes place at Auschwitz as Europe remembers victims

International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorations in Europe took place amid rising anti-Semitism which gained ground during lockdowns as the COVID-19 pandemic heightened online hate.

January 27 marks the occasion to commemorate the victims of the Nazi German regime in World War II, and this year they were honored across the continent, bringing together survivors and many government officials paying tribute to the millions of people who have lost their lives.

The Nazis implemented their Final Solution, systematically murdering around six million Jews and an additional 11 million people – including members of the Roma and Sinti communities, LGBT+ people and opponents of the regime – during the war.

The date was chosen by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 as it marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the death camps, liberated by the Red Army in 1945.

At the memorial site in Poland, which was subjected to brutal German occupation during World War II, a small number of survivors gathered in an auditorium.

Attendance at the annual event has been sharply reduced amid the coronavirus outbreak in Europe. Others joined online.

Nazi German forces killed 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, and the site today stands as a powerful symbol of how hatred and indifference led to the Holocaust.

Tears in the Bundestag

In Germany, Bundestag President Baerbel Bas noted that the pandemic had acted “like an accelerator” of an already-growing problem.

“Anti-Semitism is there – it’s not just on the fringe, not just among the eternally incorrigible and a few anti-Semitic trolls on the net,” she said. “It’s a problem of our society – all of society.”

In the past few days alone, a 12-year-old Jewish boy in Italy has been attacked and subjected to anti-Semitic slurs while two men have been attacked in London.

“I lived in New York for 75 years, but I still remember well the terrible time of horror and hatred,” survivor Inge Auerbacher, 87, told Germany’s parliament.

“Unfortunately, this cancer has woken up and hatred of Jews is once again commonplace in many countries around the world, including Germany.”

“This disease needs to be cured as soon as possible,” Auerbacher said.

“Our country bears a special responsibility — the genocide against European Jews is a German crime,” Bas said.

Israel’s Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy broke down in tears during the memorial session of the German parliament while reciting the Jewish mourning prayer from a prayer book that belonged to a German Jewish boy who celebrated his bar mitzvah on the eve of Kristallnacht, a coordinated series of anti-Jewish attacks across the country in 1938.

Levy said that Israel and Germany have had “an exceptional journey on the road to reconciliation and building courageous relations and friendship between us.”

Levy also accompanied German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier as they laid wreaths at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

In Brussels, EU lawmakers listen to survivors

Gathered in the European Parliament, European lawmakers listened to the story of Margot Friedlander, a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor.

She was arrested in 1944 while on the run and taken to Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. A year earlier, his mother and brother had been deported to Auschwitz, where they had both been killed.

Friedlander and her husband emigrated to the United States in 1946 and she returned to Berlin in 2010. Since then, she has traveled throughout Germany telling her story and promoting remembrance.

“We have to be vigilant and not look away like we did then,” she said. “Hate, racism and anti-Semitism must not be the last word in history.”

EU Council President Charles Michel stressed the importance of commemorating the Holocaust as the number of survivors dwindles each year.

“With each passing year, the Holocaust tends to become a historic event,” Michel said.

“More and more distant, more and more abstract. Especially in the eyes of the younger generations of Europeans. This is why, paradoxically, the more the years pass, the more the commemoration becomes important. The most essential.”

The three presidents of the EU institutions also took part in an online event organized by the European Jewish Congress, or EJC.

The European Commission – the executive arm of the EU – presented a new strategy last year to combat hate speech, raise awareness of Jewish life, protect places of worship and ensure the Holocaust is not not forgotten.

According to the European Fundamental Rights Agency, nine out of ten Jews say anti-Semitism has increased in their country and is a serious problem.

With misinformation about the Holocaust widely circulating on the internet, EJC President Moshe Kantor cited the coronavirus pandemic as one of the reasons for the rise in anti-Semitism.

He called on leaders to step up efforts to connect with young Europeans to raise awareness about the Holocaust.

“It is no coincidence that in the midst of the pandemic, extremists are spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about Jews or the State of Israel,” Kantor said.

While France currently holds the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the EJC ceremony focused on the Holocaust in France, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, a mass arrest of Jews by French police in 1942.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he had taken steps to disband hate groups and lamented that “the falsifications of history are back”.

“Indifference is the greatest enemy of democracy”

In Italy, members of the Jewish community and lawmakers gathered in the Rome ghetto to lay a wreath where more than 1,000 people were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1943.

Lower House Speaker Roberto Fico and Senate Speaker Elisabetta Casellati laid wreaths at the site.

Lello Dell’Ariccia, a member of the Jewish community in Rome, said the day was chosen as “a symbol of the Holocaust: as the symbol of liberation, but fundamentally it is a symbol for all those who died in the concentration camps”.

“And ‘Memory Day’ is the day that should commemorate, remember and make us reflect on what happened,” Dell’Ariccia said.

Among those attending the commemoration was Italian Senator for Life Liliana Segre, a 91-year-old Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor who has made educating younger generations about the Holocaust her life’s work.

In the Romanian capital Bucharest, a small ceremony was held inside a Holocaust memorial where Israel’s ambassador to the country gave a speech warning that indifference to persecution can be the loss of democracy.

“We must not remain indifferent because indifference is the greatest enemy of democracy. We must not only let the voice of extremism be heard,” said Ambassador David Saranga.

Auschwitz survivor Fulop Octavian also spoke at the event, sharing his strong commitment that younger generations must remember the events of the Holocaust, “because without him, history can repeat itself.” .

In Albania, the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Olta Xhaçka, paid tribute to the millions of victims while being proud of her country’s role in welcoming Jews.

“We honor the memory of the millions of innocent Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II. But as Albanians, we also look with pride at the fact that Jews were welcomed, protected and saved from tragedy, which earned Albania a place among the Righteous Among the Nations,” Xhaçka wrote on Twitter.

Although occupied by both Germany and Italy during World War II, Albania was the only country in Nazi-occupied Europe to see its Jewish population increase, due to the people’s promise Albanians not to deliver them. In Berat alone, a town in central Albania, they were hidden in the houses and basements of around 60 families belonging to the Muslim and Christian communities.

You can watch Auschwitz**commemorative event in the video player above.**