Holocaust remembrance amid denial and distortion during the COVID-19 pandemic

Holocaust remembrance amid denial and distortion during the COVID-19 pandemic
Holocaust Memorial in Thessaloniki, Greece, credit: amna.gr. During the Nazi occupation, the Jews were segregated from the rest of the population and 50,000 people were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz.

Ahead of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January, both the UN and the EU have issued statements condemning Holocaust denial and calling on more focus on education to learn about the Holocaust, keep the memory alive and counter the surge in antisemitism.

The day marks the anniversary of the liberation of the extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet Red Army on 27 January 1945.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, images of the Holocaust have been misused by protesters against restrictions imposed by the authorities for health reasons and anti-vaxxers are comparing themselves to the victims of the Holocaust. “To be compared to those conspiracy theories and fake news, it’s something impossible to get,” said Dr Piotr Cywiski, director of the Auschwits-Birkenayi Memorial and Museum in an interview.

The United Nation’s General Assembly adopted last week (20 January) a resolution that condemns denial and distortion of the Holocaust. The resolution reaffirms that the “Holocaust will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice.” It was adopted by consensus, without any country-by-country vote. The only country which objected was Iran.

UN statement

In his statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres talked about “the magnificent mosaic of Jewish life in Europe” that was destroyed during the Holocaust. “We join together first and foremost to honour the memory of those who perished; to ensure they are never forgotten; to give them – as it says in the Book of Isaiah – ‘a monument and a name’.”

“The very essence of the work of the United Nations – for dignity and human rights, for justice and peace – is to give meaning to the pledge of ‘Never Again’.”

Talking about the resurgence of antisemitism, “the oldest form of hate and prejudice”, he mentioned among others “the reprehensible way in which protestors against life-saving vaccines demonstrate wearing the Yellow Star” and the “deeply disturbing attempts to deny, distort or minimize the Holocaust which are finding fertile ground on the internet amidst growing ignorance and disdain.”

“No society is immune to intolerance or irrationality,” he said. “My own country, Portugal, is marred by this history too. I have spoken to you before about the expulsion of our Jewish population at the turn of the sixteenth century – an act of cruelty that caused tremendous suffering and an act of stupidity that produced centuries of stagnation.”

He was referring to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497) under the influence of the Inquisition.  Many of them would find refuge in The Netherlands and the former Ottoman empire, where they lived in relative safety until the Holocaust.

EU statement

“The Holocaust was a European disaster,” says the statement by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.  “Antisemitism led to this disaster. Antisemitism dehumanises the Jewish people. In Nazi Germany, this dehumanisation opened the door to the Shoah (Holocaust). We must never forget.”

She also referred to the distortion of the Holocaust and the misuse of its memory in the protests against the restrictions and vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Since the start of the pandemic, anti-Semitic conspiracy myths and disinformation has spiralled on- and offline. People marching European streets wearing the star of David, comparing pandemic measures with the genocide of the Nazi regime, trivialise the experience of Shoah victims. Holocaust distortion nourishes the rhetoric of hate.”

Combatting antisemitism

Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life, will attend in person in commemorative events in Athens and in Thessaloniki on 27 and 28 January. The Brussels Times asked him about EU’s strategy against antisemitism and the significance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Question: In beginning of October last year, the Commission presented an EU strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life in Europe. The strategy was structured around three pillars. How would you describe the progress since then in implementing the strategy by the Commission and EU MS? 

Answer: The EU Strategy has been recognized as a pivotal moment in the fight against antisemitism from partners in Europe and beyond. We are determined to step up the fight against antisemitism and to create an inclusive society based on equality and respect, working closely with our Member States. We welcome the active engagement of the French Presidency in combating antisemitism and we are currently negotiating Council Conclusions on combating racism and antisemitism.

This Strategy runs until 2030. We want to create sustainable structures and are starting to put them in place. We started to move on many fronts from policy design to concrete implementation of different actions. We are preparing the first civil society forum on combating antisemitism to take place this year and are setting into motion a European research hub on contemporary antisemitism.

We will support educational professional training on addressing antisemitism through education, in cooperation with UNESCO. At the start of a new budgetary cycle, we are looking to make the most out of EU resources having increased funds available for the protection of public space and places of worship to €24 million in 2022, and doubled our funding on Holocaust remembrance with €8 million for this year.

Finally, to give you a concrete example of one of our actions to reach out the general public and raise awareness on Jewish history, for the first time, the Commission headquarters, the Berlaymont, will be illuminated with #WeRemember on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Q: You are going to participate in a commemorative event in Thessaloniki, your native city. How would you say that the city has come to terms with its Jewish past and preserved the legacy and the memory of the Holocaust? 

A: As a native of Thessaloniki, I grew up surrounded by testaments of the immense contribution of Jewish culture to our European heritage. And by evidence of the devastation that the Holocaust brought upon a city that was once a thriving centre of Jewish life, known as ‘La madre de Israel’.

Preserving the historic memory of the Holocaust and pushing back against denial, distortion and trivialization is our collective responsibility. We owe it to the victims, to survivors and to future generations. As the last survivors are passing away, we urgently need to find new ways of remembrance.

Today, the Greek government, mainstream political parties and local authorities are strongly condemning antisemitic incidents. They are expressing strong support for the Greek Jewish community and are participating in annual commemorations of the Holocaust and other events organised by the Jewish community.

This year, for the first time, the Greek Parliament and the City Hall of Athens will be illuminated with #WeRemember and participate in the World Jewish Congress campaign. An important milestone in Greece will be the future Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Centre of Greece on Human Rights, under construction in Thessaloniki.

Q: The United Nation’s General Assembly adopted last week a resolution that condemns denial and distortion of the Holocaust. What is its significance for the EU and its own strategy against Holocaust denial?

A: Stepping up the global fight against antisemitism, including in the multilateral context is a key objective of our EU strategy. I welcome the UN Resolution. This resolution has been co-sponsored by 114 UN Members, including 27 EU Member States.

We have seen a sharp increase of manifestations of Holocaust denial, distortion and trivialization recently, both online and on European streets. Holocaust distortion nourishes the rhetoric of hate. Every European needs to know the facts and learn about the Holocaust. Holocaust denial and distortion is a form of antisemitism and is criminalised across the EU.

We have a strong legal basis and have launched infringement procedures on EU Member States that failed to transpose correctly EU law into their national legislation. Holocaust denial, distortion and trivialization have a corrosive effect for collective historic memory, for the resilience and cohesion of our democratic societies.

In addition, the Commission will continue to support the awareness-raising campaign on countering Holocaust distortion, #ProtectTheFacts, a global campaign launched together with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, UNESCO and UN.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times


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