To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the World Jewish Congress (WJC), in partnership with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, hosted a virtual commemoration ceremony emphasizing the importance of remembering the victims and combating modern antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and all other forms of hatred. The online gathering was held on the final day of the WJC’s fifth annual global Holocaust education initiative, the #WeRemember Campaign.
“People must see what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust,” said WJC President Ronald S. Lauder. “The world needs a reminder. We must make sure future generations know the lessons of this terrible event. It is vital that ‘we remember’.”
Lauder warned that “the same old lies have resurfaced,” adding, “that is why education about the Holocaust is so important, especially when so many young people have never even been told about what happened. The world needs reminding.” Last year, Lauder delivered a keynote address at the official 75th anniversary of the commemoration of the liberation, appealing to world leaders to advance Holocaust education before it’s too late.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic making an in-person gathering impossible, speakers acknowledged the importance of convening virtually to remember the horrors of the past and ensure the atrocities of the Holocaust are never forgotten.
Speaking from the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, Piotr Cywinski, Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, called the former Nazi extermination camp “the very core of hatred, the core of the Holocaust.” “The remembrance of the Holocaust is not devoted only to the past. Our memory must change our world today and our future.” Noting the rise of xenophobia and antisemitism, Cywinski opined that the world is suffering from “our own incapacity to react. We are the bystanders of our time. This why we need to remember."
Holocaust survivor Tova Friedman, who participated in the WJC partner organization the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation’s delegation last year of survivors and family members to the 75th anniversary of the liberation, reflected on her experience last year. She said, “We shared our stores, our memories and our pain. We mourned the dead and we remembered them, and we celebrated the survivors and renewed our pledge to educate the young and old of the dangers of prejudice.” Friedman added that just as “scientists around the world are battling the deadly COVID-19 virus, we have to battle the virus of racism, the virus of hatred and the virus of prejudice.”
She recalled the horrors of being taken to Auschwitz as a five-year-old. “I was no longer a child – I was no longer a person.”
“As antisemitism is rearing its ugly head again, the voices of protests are not many and not loud enough,” she said. She urged her fellow Holocaust survivors to “rededicate our mission and intensify our effort to educate people everywhere by speaking out, by writing, by protesting, demonstrating, everywhere. To ignore it is to open the gate to it to happen again.” On behalf of fellow survivors, Friedman thanked Lauder calling him “our mentor, our champion, our supporter and visionary.”
Speaking from Frankfurt’s Holocaust memorial, Micky Furhmann, a member of WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps, quoted the late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel saying, "The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference." Furhmann urged all to be active in the fight against antisemitism and racism, saying, “We are all responsible to learn from history and to act accordingly. We cannot change the past, but we can create a better and safer future.”
President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda noted that while this year’s commemoration ceremony “looks different,” it is a reminder "that we must always, whatever the circumstances, fulfill our duty as witnesses to memory and guardians of the truth about the Holocaust." Duda concluded, “We the contemporary ones will carry on and convey to future generations the message from this place: no more Auschwitz, no more genocide, hatred and racism!”
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the Federal Republic of Germany, spoke about the need to "learn from the past, protect the future." Steinmeier noted that we “remember the victims, but also our future,” adding “the greatest danger for all of us begins with forgetting." Concluding, Steinmeier said: “I want to assure you that we will not waver, we will continue to fight against antisemitism, racism and all other forms of hatred. Looking to the future, remembering the victims of the Shoah means saying ‘never again.’ That is the essence of our enduring responsibility.”
Added Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel, “Our duty is not only to remember the past but to remind the whole world the lessons of history in order to build a better future.”
The ceremony closed with a recitation of the El Malei Rachamim prayer by Cantor Avner Fisch from Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in Modi'in, Israel.