Honour for rescuers of Jews as International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2013 marked – but concern at anti-Semitism in Europe

Written by on January 26, 2013 in Bulgaria, Europe, News, World - No comments

Those who risked their lives to save Jews and others from mass extermination in World War 2 are inspiration for the courage to fight for a better world, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other UN officials said on January 25, two days ahead of the 2013 annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Let us be inspired by those who had the courage to care – the ordinary people who took extraordinary steps to defend human dignity,” Ban said in a video message aired at a General Assembly ceremony to mark the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.

This year’s observance of the International Day is built around the theme “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care,” profiling individual rescuers – who not only defied the Nazis, but often also multiple governments – through exhibits, film, educational activities and the January 25 ceremony.

“Acts of genocide illustrate the depths of evil to which individuals and whole societies can descend, but the examples of the brave men and women we celebrate today also demonstrate the capacity of humankind for good, even during the darkest of days,” Ban said, as quoted by the UN News Service.

He noted that this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Righteous Among Nations Programme at the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel, which is devoted to identifying and rewarding such heroes.

Following the airing of Ban’s remarks, profiles of rescuers punctuated the proceedings, ranging from Irene Sendler, a Polish woman who smuggled children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, to the Veseli family, Albanian Muslims that hid a Jewish family on their farm, to an unknown platform guard that saved a Dutch Romani boy.

Helping to open the ceremony, Raymond Serge Bale, Vice-President of the UN General Assembly, said it was fitting that the Assembly resolution that established the commemoration called not only for the remembrance of the suffering of Holocaust victims but also evoked a moral obligation to warn against the horrors of hatred and prejudice, to prevent further acts of genocide.

“The values demonstrated by those who rose above evil to save others serve as guiding principles to protect the human rights of future generations – courage, compassion, moral leadership, self-sacrifice, social responsibility, integrity and righteousness,” Bale said.

The annual International Day was designated by a UN General Assembly resolution as January 27 each year, on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

In a separate message for the Day, Ban urged the world to follow the example of those who had “the courage to care,” and affirmed that: “Their example can help us build a better world today.”

The European Jewish Congress co-hosted a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 22 in the European Parliament, the first time the event has been placed on the official calendar of the European institutions.

Addressing the emotional gathering under the patronage of European Parliament President Martin Schulz and EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and in the presence of ambassadors, MEPs and religious dignitaries as well as leaders of Europe’s Jewish communities, EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor drew parallels between the period before World War 2 and the current times in Europe today where Europe refused to heed the warnings of the rise of racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance.

“I am warning Europe again, wake up immediately and limit your tolerance to racism and anti-Semitism,” Kantor said, citing a 50 per cent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2012 and political gains by two virulently anti-Semitic parties: Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary.

These developments, as well as “Iran’s determined advance toward obtaining and delivering nuclear weapons,” made 2013 “a time of gathering storm clouds” for Jews, he added, quoted in a EJC statement.

Over the past seven years, the European Parliament has hosted annual ceremonies organised by Jewish groups to commemorate the January 27 Holocaust Memorial Day, the day in 1945 that Russian troops liberated Auschwitz.

Responding to Kantor, EP President Martin Schulz acknowledged that Jewish people are currently living in fear in many parts of Europe but that the European Union was established “on the lessons of Auschwitz” as a framework for “mutual control to avoid one member passing uncontrollably in a dangerous direction.”

Smíškova, Czech Republic. Photo: Daniel Baránek

Meanwhile, in Belgium, the official representative body of Belgian Jews and EJC affiliate, the Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organisations (CCOJB) condemned a decision of Belgium’s upper house of parliament which the CCOJB said does not go far enough in accepting the country’s responsibility in the deportation of Jews during the Shoah.

Last week, the senate approved a motion in which it recognised the responsibility of “some” authorities of the Belgian state, a watering down of an original motion which had recognised the responsibility of the state itself.

The move is seen by the CCOJB as backtracking from a clear acceptance of the responsibility of the Belgian state by given earlier this year by prime minister Elio Di Rupo.

In a statement, the CCOJB called the decision by the senate “an unacceptable and deliberate reduction in Belgian responsibility in the deportation of the Jews.”

On January 24, it was reported that following the concern among Belgian’s Jewish community over the senate resolution which appeared to water down the responsibility of the Belgian state during the Shoah, the senate would strengthen the wording of the text.

A previous resolution recognising the responsibility of Belgian authorities will now clearly define the responsibility of that of the state itself, reports said.

Marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a new display will open on January 27 2013 in the lobby of the Library and Archives Building at Yad Vashem, Israel’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “Gathering the Fragments – Behind the Scenes of the Campaign to Rescue Personal Items from the Holocaust” will display the process of collection, research, registration and digitization performed in the framework of the nationwide project to rescue personal Holocaust-related items. The opening event will be attended by Holocaust survivors whose personal items are displayed in the exhibition.

Exhibition Curator Michael Tal explained, as quoted in the Israeli foreign ministry statement, “The majority of items donated to Yad Vashem during the campaign have come via second- or third-generation descendants of the survivors and others who possess items from their families in Europe. Therefore, most of the information we receive about the items is, at best, only partial. The exhibition therefore showcases the research work carried out at Yad Vashem in order to reconstruct the full story behind each item. We are committed to learning as much as possible about everything that comes to us, and to sharing new insights with the greater public.”

Monument, Częstochowa Warta railway station. Photo: pbm

In a statement on its website, Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry said that in 2013, Bulgaria commemorates 70 years since the saving of its Jews during World War 2.

“The example of Bulgarian society in its civil valour in defence of the persecuted Jews should not be forgotten nor misunderstood. Because it was an act of courage and universal moral values by people of different faiths,” the statement said.

“At the foundation of the saving of the Bulgarian Jews was the power of civil society in Bulgaria which dared to stand up to Hitler’s madness. There can be no doubt about the contribution of Dimitar Peshev, the courage of Metropolitans Stefan and Kiril, as well as many intellectuals, without whose efforts and willingness to take responsibility at a decisive moment, none of this would have been possible.”

An important role was played by the Foreign Ministry of the time and some of the Bulgarian diplomats, who issued transit visas to Jews from Romania and Hungary, saving thousands of human lives, the statement said.

In commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews and in tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, especially the Jews in the territories occupied by Hitler’s forces, Vardar Macedonia and Thrace, modern Bulgarian society joins the world in opposition to xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ethnic and religious prejudice, the Foreign Ministry said.

Memorial to the Holocaust and the prevention of the deportation of Bulgarian Jews, Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo: Avishai Teicher

The President of the Republic of Bulgaria, Rosen Plevneliev, will take part in events on January 28, organised by UNESCO on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Plevneliev will attend the opening of an exhibition by the State Agency Archives “The Rescue: 1943” in the building of the agency.

In a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “Today we remember the victims of the Holocaust. We honour every one of the six million who were brutally murdered in this darkest period of European history. “I also want to pay special tribute to the survivors of the Holocaust, who remind us of this tragedy that we must never forget,” Ashton said.

“On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we remember that this crime was not perpetrated by a few individuals. Many took part directly or indirectly and many more just let it happen. That is why we must remain vigilant. Genocide is caused by the violence of some and the indifference of others.”

Ashton said that the day also was a chance to celebrate “the acts of courage and sacrifice which lit up Europe: neighbours who saved families, employers who rescued their employees and all those who protected their fellow citizens”.

“These acts are proof that we are not powerless against evil. That is a lesson which must guide us today; not just to remember the crimes of the past, but to dedicate ourselves to preventing all acts of hatred and standing up for fundamental rights and freedoms in our own time,” she said.

 

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at Yad Vashem, 2010. Photo: EC Audiovisual Service

 

Among the special events organised at the United Nations in New York:

“Whoever Saves a Single Life … Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust”

This exhibit showcases some of those rare but exceedingly important instances where people fought to safeguard their Jewish fellow citizens during the Holocaust. In a time of overwhelming death and destruction, rescuers did not stand by silently. Their bravery shows us that people are able to make choices and act on them, even in the face of powerful constraints, offering us a lesson on the universal value of the preservation of human life, human dignity, and human rights.

The exhibit has been produced by The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous and will be on view until 18 February 2013.

Film Screening and Panel Discussion of “The Rescuers”

This documentary film by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Michael King chronicles the heroic efforts of a dozen diplomats who used the powers and privileges tied to their postings throughout Europe to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during the Second World War. These 12 individuals – from a Muslim Turk stationed in Greece to a Japanese envoy posted in Kaunas, Lithuania – took enormous personal risks to their lives and livelihoods to help others in dire circumstances.

“The Rescuers” is told through the eyes of Stephanie Nyombayire, an activist who lost members of her family in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and pre-eminent historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who lost family members in the Holocaust. As they travel across 15 countries and three continents interviewing survivors and descendants of the rescuers, they explore the mystery of goodness in the face of danger.

Among those featured in the film are German diplomat and Nazi party member Georg F. Duckwitz in Copenhagen; Varian Fry and Hiram Bingham from the United States in Marseilles; Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara; the Dutchman Jan Zwartendijk in Kaunas; Turkish Consul Selahattin Ülkümen in Rhodes; British Captain Frank Foley in Berlin; Polish diplomat Henryk Slawik in Budapest; Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who helped coordinate the rescue efforts in Budapest in 1944 with Archbishop Angelo Rotta, representative of the Vatican; Consul Carl Lutz of Switzerland; and Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul stationed in Bordeaux, who issued visas in defiance of his Government’s orders, allowing the safe passage of Jews to Portugal. Princess Alice, grandmother of the Prince of Wales, is also recognized for hiding a Jewish family in her Athens palace.

Event at the United Nations Office in Geneva:

Opening ceremony of the exhibit co-organised by the Israeli and Bulgarian missions to the UN in Geneva: “The Power of Civil Society: the Fate of Jews in Bulgaria” – 21 posters with photographs, document copies and text showing the sequence of the events under consideration and social and political processes in Bulgaria and the world that took place in parallel to them.

This exhibition was first presented by the State Institute for Culture of Bulgaria on November 26, 2008 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the presence of diplomats, community leaders, representatives of the Jewish community in Bulgaria, researchers studying the events that took place in 1943. Since then the exhibition has been travelling all around the world.

The exhibition was prepared in co-operation with the Centre for Jewish Studies at the St. Kliment Ohridski University in Sofia.

(Archive photo of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon laying a wreath at the Yad Vashem memorial: Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

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About the Author

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015).