World remembers Holocaust as anti-Semitism rises in pandemic

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A person walks behind the gate of the Nazi death camp Sachsenhausen with the phrase ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free) in Oranienburg, about 18 miles north of Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, January 25, 2022. Thursday Jan. 27, 2022, International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

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WARSAW, Poland — Survivors recalled their agony in a world they fear to forget, the speaker of Israel’s parliament wept in the German parliament, and politicians warned of a resurgence of anti-Semitism on the International Day Holocaust Remembrance Thursday.

The day falls on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the death camps where Nazi Germany implemented its final solution to murder the Jewish people of Europe.

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, mostly Jews, but also Poles, Roma and others, and the site today stands as a powerful symbol of how hatred and indifference led to the Holocaust.

Halina Birenbaum, a 92-year-old Polish-born poet who lives in Israel, recalled her suffering from a distance. She was 10 when the Germans invaded and occupied Poland in September 1939, and 13 when she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau after being led out of the Majdanek camp gas chamber following a malfunction.

“I saw masses of the powerful but arrogant army of Nazi Germany as they marched cruelly, victoriously, through the devastated and burning streets of Warsaw,” she recalls.

“The countless experiences of infinite suffering on the verge of death are already a distant and unimaginable story for new generations,” she said.

Across the board, commemorations have been held amid rising anti-Semitism that has gained ground during lockdowns as the coronavirus pandemic has heightened online hate.

German parliament speaker Baerbel Bas noted that the coronavirus pandemic has acted “like an accelerator” of already-growing anti-Semitism.

“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.”

Holocaust survivor Inge Auerbacher is kissed by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, next to Baerbel Bas, right, Speaker of the Bundestag, during the hour of commemoration of the

Holocaust survivor Inge Auerbacher is kissed by Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, next to Baerbel Bas, right, Speaker of the Bundestag, during the hour of commemoration of the ‘Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the National- socialism” at the German Bundestag in Berlin on Thursday, January 27, 2022. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

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

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 2005 establishing International Holocaust Remembrance Day as an annual commemoration and chose January 27, the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945.

In total, approximately 6 million European Jews and millions of other people were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust. Some 1.5 million were children.

“Our country bears a special responsibility – the genocide against European Jews is a German crime,” Bas told Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag.

Israeli parliament speaker Mickey Levy broke down in tears in the Bundestag as he recited 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, an explosion of anti-Jewish violence in 1938.

Mickey Levy, Speaker of the Knesset, reacts during the commemoration of the

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy reacts during the commemoration of ‘Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism’ at the German Bundestag, in Berlin, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP)

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

Gathered in the European Parliament, European lawmakers listened to the ordeal of Margot Friedlander, a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor. She was arrested in 1944 while on the run and brought 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.”

Charles Michel, the head of the EU Council bringing together the leaders of the 27 EU member countries, stressed the importance of commemorating the Holocaust as the number of survivors decreases 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.

To combat Holocaust denial, UNESCO and the World Jewish Congress on Thursday launched a partnership with online platform TikTok popular with young people. They say this will allow users to be directed to verified information when searching for Holocaust-related terms.

According to the UN, 17% of Holocaust-related content on TikTok denied or misrepresented the Holocaust.

“All online platforms must take responsibility for the spread of hate speech by promoting trusted sources of information,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

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. Attendees of the commemoration included Senator Italian 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 Albania, Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka honored the millions of victims while being proud of her country’s role in sheltering Jews.

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Petrequin reported from Brussels. Geir Moulson in Berlin, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed.


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