BRUSSELS (AP) — Holocaust survivors and politicians warned about the resurgence of antisemitism and Holocaust denial as the world remembered Nazi atrocities and commemorated the 77th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Thursday.
“I have lived in New York for 75 years, but I still remember well the terrible time of horror and hatred,” survivor Inge Auerbacher, 87, told the German parliament. “Unfortunately, this cancer has reawakened and hatred of Jews is commonplace again in many countries in the world, including Germany.”
Commemorations took place amid a rise of antisemitism that gained traction during lockdowns as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated hatred online.
“This sickness must be healed as quickly as possible,” Auerbacher said.
German parliament speaker Baerbel Bas noted that the coronavirus pandemic has acted “like an accelerant” to already burgeoning antisemitism.
“Antisemitism is here — it isn’t just on the extreme fringe, not just among the eternally incorrigible and a few antisemitic trolls on the net,” she said. “It is a problem of our society — all of society.”
The U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in November 2005 establishing the annual commemoration, and chose Jan. 27 — the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945.
Due to the pandemic, many International Holocaust Remembrance Day events were being held online this year again. A small ceremony, however, was to take place at the site of the former Auschwitz death camp, where World War II Nazi German forces killed 1.1 million people in occupied Poland. The memorial site was closed earlier in the pandemic but reopened in June.
In all, about 6 million European Jews and millions of other people were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust. Some 1.5 million were children.
“Our country bears a special responsibility — the genocide against the European Jews is a German crime,” Bas told a special parliamentary session in Berlin attended by the country’s leaders. “But at the same time it is a past that is everyone’s business — not just Germans, not just Jews.”
Israel’s parliamentary speaker, Mickey Levy, broke down in tears at Germany’s Bundestag while reciting the Jewish mourner’s prayer from a prayer book that belonged to a German Jewish boy who celebrated his bar mitzvah on the eve of Kristallnacht.
Levy said that Israel and Germany experienced “an exceptional journey on the way to reconciliation and establishing relations and brave friendship between us.”
Auerbacher recalled being nearly hit by a stone thrown by Nazi thugs during the anti-Jewish pogrom of November 1938. In August 1942, she and other Jews were transported to the Theresienstadt camp-ghetto.
“I was 7 years old and the youngest of about 1,100 people, of whom my parents, I and a very few others survived,” she said.
Gathered at the European Parliament, EU lawmakers listened to 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Margot Friedlander's ordeal. She was arrested in 1944 while on the run and brought to Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic. A year before, her mother and brother were deported to Auschwitz, where they were both killed.
Friedlander and her husband immigrated to the U.S. in 1946 and she returned to Berlin in 2010. She has since been traveling around Germany to tell the story of her life and promote remembrance.
“We must be vigilant and not look the other way as we did then," she said. “Hatred, racism and antisemitism must not be the last word in history."
Charles Michel, the head of the EU Council bringing together leaders of the 27 EU member countries, insisted on the importance of commemorating the Shoah as the number of survivors diminishes every year.
“With each passing year, the Shoah inches towards becoming a historical event," Michel said. “More and more distant, more and more abstract. Especially in the eyes of the younger generations of Europeans. This is why, paradoxically, the more the years go by, the more important the commemoration becomes. The more essential."
To tackle Holocaust denial, UNESCO and the World Jewish Congress launched a partnership Thursday with the online platform TikTok popular with youngsters. They say it will allow users to be oriented toward verified information when searching for terms related to the Shoah.
According to the U.N., 17% of content related to the Holocaust on TikTok either denied or distorted the Holocaust.
“All online platforms must take responsibility for the spread of hate speech by promoting reliable sources of information,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
In Italy, members of the Jewish community and lawmakers gathered in Rome’s Ghetto to lay a wreath on the site where more than 1,000 people were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz on Oct. 16, 1943. Among the participants in the commemoration was the Italian senator-for-life, Liliana Segre, a 91-year-old survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp who has made educating younger generations about the Holocaust her life’s work.
Lello Dell’Ariccia, a member of Rome’s Jewish community, said Jan. 27 is a symbol of the Holocaust “as the symbol of the liberation, but fundamentally it is symbolic for all those who died in the concentration camps. And the “Memory Day” is the day that has to commemorate, remember and make us think about what happened.”
In Albania, Foreign Minister Olta Xhacka honored the millions of victims but also took pride at his country's role in sheltering Jews, “earning a place among the Righteous Among Nations.”
Albania boasts that during world War II it was the only country where no Jews were killed or handed over to the Nazis and their numbers increased from 600 before the war to more than 2,000 by its end. Albanians protected Jewish residents, and helped other Jews who fled from Germany, Austria and other countries by either smuggling them abroad or hiding them.
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, contributed.