Memories of World War II genocide and fears of rising anti-Semitism today came to the fore Monday at events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
An European Jewish leader condemned anti-Semitism as a crime at one event and Auschwitz survivors marked 69 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, at another.
The ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial took place on the day established by the United Nations in memory of some 6 million Holocaust victims. The dead include some 1.5 million killed at Auschwitz, most of them Jews.
Some 20 survivors walked through the gate that bares the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” – German for “Work Makes You Free” – sign and laid a wreath at the former camp’s Executions Wall. Inmates, many of them Polish resistance members, were shot to death there.
About 60 members of the Knesset, the Israeli legislature, joined the survivors for the observances that included visits to the red brick Auschwitz barracks which house a collection of the victims’ belongings and hair and a list of the names of some 4.2 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
In a special ceremony in Birkenau, the part of the camp that included the gassing chambers and crematoria, they also heard from one of the survivors. Noah Klieger spoke of the Death March, in which some 15,000 prisoners died after Nazis fleeing the advancing Soviet army in January 1945 forced the inmates still able to walk to march west in freezing weather.
Guests also remembered Jan. 27, 1945, when the Soviet army entered the camp and freed the remaining inmates, mostly children and sick people.
Israeli coalition leader, Yariv Levin, speaking on behalf of Knesset members, said that people in Israel should rely on themselves and aim to build a safe world.
“Walking here, on this soil soaked with blood of our brothers and sisters, we must assure our children and future generations that a different world, full of hope and free of fear can be built.”
Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, rejected free speech arguments over what he called the worldwide spread of anti-Semitism in a speech at a European parliament ceremony in Brussels. Anti-Semitism is “not an opinion – it’s a crime,” he said.
Kantor pointed to the “quenelle,” a gesture invented by the French comedian Dieudonne that some have called an inverted Nazi salute. The comic, who has been convicted more than half a dozen times for inciting racial hatred or anti-Semitism, said it is merely an anti-establishment symbol.
The gesture made headlines when soccer star Nicolas Anelka used it to celebrate a goal.
“Today we are witnessing the absolute democratization of anti-Semitism,” Kantor said. It is “a symbol invented by a so-called comedian that allows young people out for a drink, soldiers having a laugh and even a footballer scoring a goal to have their own unique opportunity for Jew hatred.”
Meanwhile, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano condemned as a “miserable provocation” threats against Rome’s Jewish community in recent days, including the delivery of packages containing pig heads to Rome’s main synagogue.
Napolitano said Monday during Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations that recent insults made against the Jewish community are “comparable only to the repugnant material in those packages.”
Italian police also detained two men, ages 33 and 47, on suspicion of instigating racial hatred for anti-Semitic graffiti, including denial of the Holocaust, near the main judicial offices in Rome. Authorities said the men belong to different far-right groups.
No arrests have been announced for the delivery of the pig head’s.
Also Monday, the Holocaust Survivors’ Foundation USA called on Germany’s Allianz insurance and financial company to pay aging survivors benefits that their families bought before they died in the Holocaust.
Legislation that would allow survivors in the United States to sue European insurance companies has lingered in Congress for years.
“It is shameful that today, Holocaust survivors are not allowed to even bring a lawsuit in a U.S. court to recover these unpaid policies,” they said.