76 years ago, on the 27th of January 1945, Soviet troops entered the Auschwitz camp complex, liberating the 7,000 prisoners that they found there.
Today, we remember and honor the victims and survivors of the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma, those who resisted the Nazis and those who protected or rescued their persecuted fellow human beings.
Just days prior to the 27th of January, nearly 60 000 prisoners were forced to march for days under brutal conditions in freezing temperatures.
They marched through Europe‘s cities and villages westward to Buchenwald, to Flossenbürg, to Dachau, to Sachsenhausen, and other camps.
These forced marches, which survivors would call the Death Marches, were being done, in part, because the Nazis did not want prisoners to fall into the hands of Allied forces alive; they did not want them to tell their stories, to testify. That is, they wanted to destroy the evidence.
Today, we know that the evidence could not be destroyed. We know that, against all odds, many did tell their stories.
On the occasion of 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are reminded of the importance of listening to the evidence, to the facts, to this history.
Remembrance plays a critical role in fighting the persistent forces of antisemitism and Holocaust denial and distortion.
This is because remembrance ties us fundamentally to the facts, to what took place and the people it affected. When we remember, when we strive to reflect upon this suffering, we understand that as unimaginable as it is, it is just as undeniable.
But today, we do so, aware that Holocaust remembrance is at a critical juncture.
Fewer and fewer survivors and eyewitnesses are with us to continue to share their testimony. We must listen to them and preserve their stories and their message with great care. And we must look after them in these difficult times.
The pandemic has hit survivors very hard. Because they are in the most vulnerable age group, they suddenly had to isolate from families, friends, and communities. Help became hard to find. Worst of all: the sudden climate brought about by this pervasive threat brought back the traumas, the anxieties, the sleepless nights. Many fear that they may lose their homes, their sanctuaries. I was glad that the Jewish Claims Conference and the German government together found ways and means to improve the support for home care and hardship cases.
Today, the duty of imparting the important lessons of the Holocaust must increasingly be taken on by others: by teachers in school classrooms, by archives and Holocaust-related institutions, by memorials and museums.
Holocaust education therefore remains fundamental. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – the IHRA – has worked for over twenty years to advance Holocaust education, remembrance and research worldwide. The IHRA unites governments, civil society, and experts from academia, from memorials and museums and from the education sector, creating a crucial forum for cooperation and exchange.
One year ago, the IHRA published new Recommendations for Teaching and Learning About the Holocaust. These are an important resource for teachers in schools and training staff in other settings. By now they have been translated into 8 languages, with 13 in progress, and have been disseminated across the IHRA members countries and beyond.
Holocaust education should not be confined only to the classroom, however. A person should be confronted with its important lessons throughout their lifetime. It should, for example, be included in professional training, especially of law enforcement, of media professionals, and of the judiciary, all of whom can play a role in combatting antisemitism, and Holocaust denial and distortion.
Teaching about the Holocaust can inspire societal awareness and personal growth. It empowers people to reflect upon the moral, political and social questions raised by the Holocaust and their relevance to questions of today. It provides an opportunity to understand some of the mechanisms that lead to genocide. To understand the choices people made to accelerate, observe or resist the process of marginalization, persecution and murder.
It helps students advance their knowledge about this unprecedented destruction and preserve the memory of individuals and specific groups who were persecuted and murdered. In other words, Holocaust education works to advance a world in which the facts of the Holocaust are abundant.
2020, the year of commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, saw a fundamental shift in Holocaust remembrance. While many events sadly had to be either postponed or cancelled entirely, many others, however, were moved online. Even though virtual commemoration events do have their challenges and don’t allow for personal exchange with survivors, they also allow us to reach out to a broader audience. In my capacity as the chair of the IHRA I was able to take part in many commemorative events and webinars all over the world, in Israel, in Canada and Serbia, at the United Nations and the OSCE, just to name a few. This allowed me to share best practices and deepen cooperation in the fight against antisemitism, to raise awareness of Holocaust denial and distortion, to promote Holocaust education, and to ensure that the Holocaust is still remembered – all on a global scale.
In bringing the world to a standstill, the Coronavirus pandemic also greatly affected Holocaust-related institutions, placing a strain on memorials and museums, many of which had to close their doors and pause their education programs. The pandemic has upended our field, and our work will likely never be the same.
At the moment, schools in many countries are closed, and, where possible, students are learning at home via digital means. Planned visits to memorial sites or talks with survivors cannot take place. While nothing can replace the immediacy of a story told in person, it is wonderful that we have found creative ways of remembering and that many Holocaust-related institutions have created new digital tools like online exhibitions or guided tours. Though the Pandemic has added new challenges, it has also shown the promise and importance of embracing digital approaches to Holocaust education and remembrance.
As many other international organizations, the IHRA as an institution had to quickly adapt to working in a digital environment. During the German presidency we strengthened the IHRA as an institution by revising its working rules, its membership procedures, by introducing digital ways of collaborating and by working towards a more highly regarded legal status. Next week, the German government is scheduled to recognize the IHRA as an international institution under the Act on Privileges, Immunities, Exemptions and Facilities in the Federal Republic of Germany as Host State to International Agencies.
With this official recognition, Germany underlines the importance and relevance of the IHRA as an international forum that addresses some of the most worrying trends of our time. With the spread of the coronavirus we have also witnessed the profusion of antisemitism, antigypsyism and discrimination against Roma and other minority groups, conspiracy myths, scapegoating, and Holocaust denial and distortion. Spurred along by hate-filled online posts, these trends have bled into the offline world, inching towards the mainstream.
Holocaust denial and distortion are gaining traction, fanning the flames of hate, and allowing antisemitism to inch towards the mainstream. We have just seen unashamed antisemitism and Holocaust Denial among the rioting mob in the Capitol. We all saw the T-shirts with the words “Camp Auschwitz” written on them. These are not just words, however: as survivor Max Eisen said “It started with words and it ended in terrible places”.
The examples of Holocaust denial and distortion we continue to witness at demonstrations against coronavirus measures are disturbing. We saw very early on protestors wearing badges shaped like the Star of David Jews were forced to wear with the word “ungeimpft” – unvaccinated – written on it. This was a worrying sign of how these movements would develop. Holocaust denial and distortion are gateways to more dangerous forms of antisemitism. They allow antisemitism to inch towards the mainstream.
Allowing distortion invites the erosion of our understanding of the Holocaust and its significance. It helps sustain an environment in which Holocaust denial, antisemitism, conspiracy myths, and dangerous forms of nationalism can thrive. It threatens the very heart of our democracies.
For this reason, the German Presidency of the IHRA has established a Global Task Force Against Holocaust Distortion to identify and promote strategies for countering this phenomenon.
Just nine days ago, the IHRA published recommendations to strengthen awareness of distortion and how to address it. In order to counter Holocaust distortion effectively, action is needed on various levels, involving many different groups, from professionals to policymakers to journalists, and society as a whole.
This week, the IHRA, together with the UN, UNESCO and the European Commission, launched a global awareness raising campaign to #protectthefacts and #saynotodistorsion. I encourage the OSCE to join this global effort.
One year ago, the IHRA’s Member and Liaison Countries renewed their commitment to uphold the Stockholm Declaration with the adoption of the 2020 IHRA Ministerial Declaration and pledged to remember the genocide of the Roma. They acknowledged with concern that the neglect of this genocide has contributed to the prejudice and discrimination that many Roma communities still experience today.While recent scholarship has advanced our knowledge of this genocide, there is still much work to be done to raise public awareness of the hundreds of thousands of Roma victims and survivors.
The pandemic has shown how deeply antigypsism is still rooted in the mindset of mainstream societies. Against the background of anti-Roma hate speech resurging during the pandemic, it was essential for the IHRA to take action. The IHRA’s adoption of a non-legally binding working definition of antigypsyism/anti-Roma discrimination is testament to what we can achieve and what we must continue to strive towards. The working definition represents a shared understanding among the IHRA’s 34 Member Countries on this key issue. I would like to thank the OSCE/ODIHR for their most helpful advice and support in this process and for raising awareness of this phenomenon. The IHRA is glad to have OSCE/ODIHR as a reliable partner.
Problems that can be identified are harder to ignore. With the adoption of the working definition of antisemitism in 2016, the IHRA gave itself, its member countries and all those who wish to use it a tool to better identify antisemitism. The working definition has since helped to sensitise individuals, organisations and governments to the various ways that antisemitism can manifest itself. It raises awareness, especially among policymakers, that this dangerous phenomenon exists in all societies, and it has helped shape a shared understanding of antisemitism. Earlier this month, the European Commission with the support of the German presidency of the IHRA published a handbook on the practical use of the working definition. I encourage members of the OSCE to make use of this resource.
As we reflect upon this history and its enduring effects, we uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. As individuals and as societies, we must carry on with this important work.
Today, we are reminded to strive for a world that listens to the evidence, for a world that remembers the Holocaust, for a world without genocide.
On 03.03.2020 Germany took over the one year Chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). It is the foremost network of governmental representatives and experts whose…