Elderly survivors, politicians, and religious leaders have gathered at the former Auschwitz extermination camp as part of commemorations around the world to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day amid an upturn in hate crimes and nationalist politics.
Political leaders used the occasion on January 27 to emphasize that the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis must continue to serve as a warning, especially to younger generations who are witnessing a rise in intolerance.
The commemorations, which took place after dusk following the end of the Jewish Sabbath, marked the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, located in southern Poland, by the Soviet Red Army in 1945.
German Nazis murdered approximately 1.1 million people at the camp. While the victims were mainly Jews, Poles, and Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and people of other nationalities were also exterminated at the camp.
“The Eurobarometer published yesterday shows that 50 percent of Europeans see anti-Semitism as a problem in their country,” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said as he opened the ceremony.
“This is unacceptable for us. We must act and react. We must reach out to citizens, in particular, young people. They are the future of Europe. Our schools and universities should not only provide skills and knowledge. They should teach the importance of solidarity, freedom, and respect for human dignity,” he added.
The anniversary comes as recent violence against Jews still reverberates around the globe.
In March 2018, Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor, was fatally stabbed in an attack in Paris, while in the United States in October, 11 Jews were murdered by a lone gunman in a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat services, the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
“Today’s threats do not come solely from the fringe,” Ira Forman, senior adviser for combatting anti-Semitism at Human Rights First, said in a statement.
“In places such as Hungary and Poland, once proudly democratic nations, government leaders are traveling the road to authoritarianism. As they do so, they are distorting history to spin a fable about their nations and the Holocaust. Worse yet, in the case of Hungary, a European government is once again employing dog-whistle anti-Semitism to further its policy goals,” he added.
As former prisoners laid flowers at the so-called "Wall of Death" at Auschwitz Memorial's Block 11, against which Nazis executed thousands of prisoners, Polish nationalists protested outside the camp, saying Poles were not being remembered in the services.
They were faced down by counterprotesters who waved Israeli flags and a "Stop Facism” sign as police kept the two groups apart. No violence was reported.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote in an opinion piece for the weekly Welt am Sonntag that Europe faces rising nationalism as "far-right provocateurs are trying to downplay the Holocaust."
"We shall never forget. We shall never be indifferent. We must stand up for our liberal democracy," Maas wrote in the article, as well as on Twitter.
“Never again fascism, never again Auschwitz,” he added.