Prof. Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz, Director of the Finkler Institute of Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University in Israel
Commemoration and remembrance—“to honor and preserve the memory of something for all eternity”—is an ancient concept whereby people in the present leave a concrete reminder of prior events for the coming generations, creating a bridge between the past and the future. Commemoration and remembrance fill several needs simultaneously, creating a source of unification and continuity, acting as a tool to develop an ethos to be passed down to future generations, and integrating patterns of belief to provide a building block in the healing process.
This is certainly true with regards to Holocaust remembrance commemoration. The Holocaust was a systematic process that took place in Europe between 1933 and 1945, where the Nazis and their collaborators, under German chancellor Adolf Hitler, first persecuted and then tried to annihilate the Jewish inhabitants of all countries under their domination based on their interpretation of a pseudo-scientific racial theory. The Holocaust has been commemorated since the end of the Second World War (1939-1945).
In a few countries, the Holocaust was commemorated nationally; in others, locally; and in most, not at all. Holocaust commemoration in Germany was particularly difficult for many years. How can you commemorate an atrocity with which so much of the local population had been identified only a short time before? There, too, Holocaust commemoration arose from a meeting of cultures and a struggle over cultural primacy between Germany’s past and present.
The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 added a new dimension to Holocaust commemoration, with national commemoration of the Holocaust of European Jewry being set already in the early 1950s. From 1959 onwards, Yom Hashoah—Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel—was set on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, taking place in the spring, near the date of the 1943 Jewish uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. The day was marked by a two-minute siren, during which people stood silently to commemorate the murder of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, and memorial ceremonies throughout the country.
But what about elsewhere? For years, the only commemoration ceremonies that existed throughout Europe and other countries involved in the Second World War were those commemorating a particular country’s soldiers fallen in battle, or civilians killed in the war. This, however, changed in November 2005 when the United Nations General Assembly, propelled by the initiative of Israeli UN delegate Silvan Shalom, adopted a resolution that International Holocaust Remembrance Day will be marked annually on 27 January and that “The Holocaust, which resulted in the destruction of one-third of the Jewish people, will forever be a warning to all of the world’s nations against the dangers of unjustified hatred, racism and prejudice.”
The General Assembly designated 27 January as an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, because on that day in 1945 the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz, the concentration camp located in Nazi-occupied Poland, which had become a symbol of the Holocaust. This was a camp in which more than a million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen between 1941 and 1945.
The UN resolution urged the member nations to “develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide.” It stated that the UN rejects “any denial of the Holocaust as an historical event, either in full or in part,” and “condemns without reserve all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur.”
Since that time, each year around 27 January, numerous countries throughout the world such as Australia, England, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Ukraine, along with UNESCO, commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and reaffirm their unwavering commitment to counter antisemitism, racism, and other forms of intolerance that may lead to violence. On the International Day of Commemoration, the United Nations General Assembly hosts a special program, and there are also commemorative ceremonies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and in Vienna.
This year, for the first time, the United Nations and UNESCO will jointly organize a series of events, in partnership with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, to mark the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Due to restrictions put in place because of COVID-19, and to reach global audiences, the events will be entirely online. Events will include a commemoration ceremony on 27 January 2021 and a panel discussion on Holocaust denial and distortion, broadcast by UNTV and CNN, in addition to exhibitions in Paris and UNESCO Field Offices around the world.
The theme chosen for this year’s commemoration (2021) is “Facing the Aftermath: Recovery and Reconstitution After the Holocaust”.
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