Sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian soldiers, leaders of more than 100 nations joined this week for a string of tributes in America, Europe, and at the death camp itself to honor victims and vow that the Nazi horrors never would be repeated.
Hanging over the events, though, was a palpable sense that in places like Rwanda and Sudan, the lessons were unlearned.
The ceremonies opened Monday in New York with a rare special session of the United Nations General Assembly, led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Elie Wiesel. They ended Thursday, following state ceremonies in London, Paris and Berlin, with a gathering at Auschwitz attended by the presidents of Israel, Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine, along with dozens of other dignitaries and hundreds of survivors and Red Army veterans.
The events were hailed worldwide as a diplomatic and moral triumph for Israel and the Jewish community. The U.N. session, requested by Israel, ended with an unprecedented chanting of the Hebrew prayer for martyrs, El Malei Rahamim , followed by Israel’s national anthem. Afterward, the U.N. opened an exhibition of art from the death camp, co-sponsored by Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial. At Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and the European Jewish Congress unveiled an ambitious new Holocaust education program aimed at young Europeans.
“The Jewish witness that I am speaks of my people’s suffering as a warning,” Wiesel told the U.N. “He sounds the alarm to prevent these tragedies from being done to others.”
Yet the dark mood was in-escapable. On the eve of the U.N. session, a report on global antisemitism was released by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, showing a sharp rise in anti-Jewish incidents in Europe last year, with the sharpest rise — nearly double the previous year’s figures — in Britain, Russia and Ukraine. In Germany, a group of far-right lawmakers demonstratively walked out of a January 21 Holocaust tribute in the Saxony state assembly in Dresden. In Britain, a government tribute was marred by an announcement from the nation’s largest Muslim organization that it would not participate unless the theme was broadened to include “genocide” in Palestine.
And in Russia, some 500 prominent figures, including 19 lawmakers, signed a seven-page letter calling vernment to ban “all ethnic and religious Jewish organizations,” saying that Jewish groups foment ethnic tension, maintain “monetary and political control” over “the entire democratic world,” and carry out anti-Jewish acts in order to win sympathy. Nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party reportedly led the group.
The 19 lawmakers, most of them Zhirinovsky followers or Communists, withdrew their signatures after the letter, dated January 13, was made public this week. The Foreign Ministry said the letter had “nothing to do with the official position of the Russian leadership.” Still, news of the letter touched off international shockwaves and demands by Israel and others for a formal investigation.
Even the historic session at the U.N. had an air of unfinished business, as one speaker after another took the rostrum to note — before a half-empty assembly hall — that mass killings continued in places like Rwanda and Sudan.
“The United Nations must never forget that it was created as a response to the evil of Nazism,” Annan told the delegates. But he continued, “Since the Holocaust, the world has, to its shame, failed more than once to prevent or halt genocide — for instance in Cambodia, in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.” And, he said, “terrible things are happening today in Darfur, Sudan.”
But, Annan said, “the tragedy of the Jewish people was unique.… An entire civilization, which had contributed far beyond its numbers to the cultural and intellectual riches of Europe and the world, was uprooted, destroyed, laid waste.”
For that reason, he said, it was “fitting” that the “first state to speak today will be the State of Israel, which rose, like the United Nations itself, from the ashes of the Holocaust.”
Pointedly absent from the event were representatives of Arab states, whose seats were nearly all empty. Several Arab countries were among the 150 nations that cosponsored the call for the special session, according to Israeli diplomats. The U.N. did not release the sponsor list.
But only one Arab state, Jordan, was represented among the 35 nations that addressed the session. The remarks of the Jordanian ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, included a thinly veiled swipe at Israel, asking “what sense” could be made “of this important commemoration when we allow through our inaction, year after year, one people to dominate another, to deny the latter many of its most basic rights.”
The anomalies in the commemoration, and the continuing slaughter in Sudan and elsewhere, prompted a host of barbed commentary around the world, from the Toronto Globe and Mail to the Australian newspaper The Age, about the futility of the exercise. Andrea Peyser, a columnist in the conservative New York Post, wrote mockingly of the Holocaust tribute by “our oily pals at the United Nations” — “the anti-American, anti-Semitic rats infesting the banks of the East River” — who “will forget the lessons of Auschwitz.”
An Israeli commentator, Jerusalem Post Editorial Features Editor Elliot Jager, wrote before the ceremonies that it was time for a “moratorium” on Holocaust education, since its goal — “to ensure ‘never again,’” has “been a dismal failure.”
“It’s time to stop peddling the Holocaust to the outside world — that’s been to no avail,” Jager wrote. “It’s also time to stop manipulating it within the Jewish world for politics or money. What we need is a cooling-off period” to “do some soul-searching.”
For most observers, however, the anniversary was an occasion for solemn remembrance and for vows to keep the memory alive. “The Holocaust must never be allowed to happen again,” South Africa’s Pretoria News declared in the headline of an editorial that was typical of world response.
“Our greatest challenge must be the education of future generations — teaching about the Holocaust and promoting its lessons throughout the globe,” the chairman of the European Jewish Congress, Russian businessman Moshe Kantor, told the Forward. “This is a task that will never be completed.”
Kantor provided the seed money for the Holocaust education project unveiled this week at Auschwitz by his organization and Yad Vashem. It is based on a pilot program run by Yad Vashem in Austria, bringing Austrian schoolteachers to Jerusalem and sending Yad Vashem educators to Austria. The governments of both Russian and Poland have endorsed it, and others are expected to follow in the coming days.
The Israeli report on global antisemitism released this week related that Europe had seen 282 violent incidents in 2004, compared with 234 incidents in 2003, according to an account in Ha’aretz. France led the way with 96 incidents in 2004, unchanged from 2003. It was followed by Britain with 77, up from 55, and by Russia with 44, up from 15.
Arabs and Muslims carried out most of the attacks, and members of the extreme right carried out only a small number, the report said. The report, by The Global Forum Against Anti-Semitism, noted that most of the violence was directed last year at private Jewish targets and less at community targets, mainly because of the greater security around Jewish schools and synagogues.
Of the rise in Britain, which it called “alarming,” the report said that a “central cause” was that “years of hostile reporting and commentary about Israel in the British press now is spilling over into the street.”