Remembrance has been extremely educational in that it has made us understand how genocides were not an extra-historical catastrophe, but rather happened due to the responsibility of human beings. This happened on a battlefield where there were executioners, accomplices, indifferent, resistant, spectators, Righteous individuals and all the intermediate nuances which, as Primo Levi knew and described to us, are very numerous.
In schools youngsters therefore learnt that one could choose in the face of Nazism and all forms of extreme evil, because nothing was taken for granted and determined a priori.
Remembrance of the Holocaust (without precedents in history, as historian Yehuda Bauer wrote) played a pivotal role in raising awareness on how singular a genocide was, aimed at eliminating Jews not only in a certain area, but also in every corner on earth following a merely imaginative ideology that considered Jews to be corrosive elements of all humanity; it allowed shaking general conscience by showing the responsibility not only of Nazis, but also of accomplices and indifferent individuals throughout Europe, despite being seriously delayed in Russia and in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe that shared communist totalitarianism and today new nationalisms; it opened for the first time in the West an important reflection on old and new forms of anti-Semitism and on Israel’s very right to exist; it showed how Jews, unlike resistance fighters and partisans, as Simone Veil argued in France, were not exterminated for their actions, but rather for the sole fault of being born; above all, for the first time in history, it raised the question of genocide prevention with 1948 UN Raphael Lemkin Convention as a legal issue that should commit the whole of humanity.
Remembrance of the Holocaust has allowed other peoples, including Armenians, Rwandans, Cambodians, Yazidis, the victims of Gulag in the totalitarian communist system, to publicly claim the right to recognition of their suffering and their sacrosanct right to justice before international public opinion.
Today we must see how the path of remembrance is showing some critical issues that, unless tackled at their roots, risk limiting its educational function and exposing a profound inadequacy in the face of new challenges of our time.
First of all, an identity and ritual interpretation of the Holocaust seems to prevail that, as Marek Edelman observed, risks undermining its character as a universal teaching. When the deputy commander of the Warsaw ghetto revolt went to Sarajevo to show his solidarity with Bosnians, he launched a very topical warning. What had happened to Jews not only did not have to be repeated any longer for Jews, it was to become a moral principle towards any threatened people.
Secondly, there is often international competition of specific remembrances (Holocaust, Armenian genocide, Gulag) that does not only interpret genocides and totalitarianism as if they were worlds apart and hence sharing no element, even in their specificity, but that sometimes pushes some people to draw up useless rankings on greater pain. Yehuda Bauer’s recent statements are of great depth: “There is no difference in the suffering of Jews, Tutsis, Russians and Chinese, Congolese or any people who have found themselves in genocidal mass murder. There is no ranking in suffering, there is no torture better than another torture, no murder better than another murder of children, no mass rape better than another and therefore there is no genocide better than another. The idea of competition is not only repugnant, it is completely illogical”. For this reason it is important to accustom educators, historians and storytellers of specific sufferings to the method of comparison, not only to grasp common issues and differences in each context, but also to raise global and universal awareness on all genocides.
The exercise of comparing genocides lays the foundations of empathy and openness towards a common tragic fate. Philosopher Jan Patocka in Prague called for the creation of “solidarity of the shaken” as a moral commitment of all affected individuals towards a new humanity.
However, the main aporia lies in the sense and goal of that never again that was to turn remembrance of the Holocaust into the turning point for prevention of all genocides. That never again repeated in a ritual and rhetorical way has become an empty phrase with no plans for the future. For some, never again is the idea of defending Jewish identity and the State of Israel. For others remembrance of the Armenian genocide is the commitment to any generic evil. It is therefore not clear to what end remembrance should be directed. It is as if an impassable vacuum were created between a tragic past and our actions in the world. Nobody then self-critically wonders what has gone wrong in the last few years and what we contemporaries have failed to do. The worst things can therefore happen in the world, as Valentina Pisanty wrote, and we console ourselves with the ritual of remembrance in which we all feel right and good ex post.
We must then ask ourselves questions about the meaning of remembrance in our time, not so much to seek pretentious and unrealizable solutions, but rather to outline a path that is consistent with the dynamics of a constantly-evolving world.
Remembrance, as Tzvetan Todorov suggested, does not imply remembering everything indistinctly, but rather always making a subjective choice according to our responsibility in the face of issues raised by the events we witness. This is why the role of historians and intellectuals is pivotal, who have to play a function of moral guidance and to connect specific remembrances that are often conflicting, on the basis of universal values.
From time to time, in an endless journey, it is necessary to give society some priorities to be reflected upon. It is crucial to have the courage to outline realistic tasks to “straighten out” the course of events. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, we always bear the burden of being responsible for the time in which we happen to be born. This is true for every generation that always has to ask new questions.
During the days of remembrance it is important to constantly inform not only about the Holocaust and genocides of the past, but also about all mass atrocities of our time, including the genocidal persecution of Rohingya in Burma, Yazidis in Irak, Uighurs in China, the crimes of Isis, mass rapes in Congo and the devastating effects of climate change that can lead to migrations, conflicts and tragedies the scope of which go beyond our imagination.
We need to accustom youngsters through reflection on the Holocaust to feel empathy and sensitivity towards the victims of our time. The lesson of genocide has really been learnt when one develops sensitivity to all forms of extreme evil in our time. This was the wish of writer David Rousset, survived from Buchenwald camp, who felt to be a moral sentry having to react to every new concentration camp in history. Today, feeling to be the “children of the Holocaust” and therefore the guardians of remembrance of a genocide means redeeming the victims of the past through active solidarity towards the newly persecuted. “Choose a well-lived life” (U'vacharta b'chaim) is a verse from the Deuteronomy that perfectly fits the task of remembrance. Melancholy, as an effect of closure in one’s own pain, leads to removal of responsibility and paralysis.
It is important to raise public awareness on the role of international instruments that can act at various levels for prevention of genocide and repression of States and power groups fuelling mass atrocities.
How can we measure if the promise of “never again” and “let us not forget” has actual effects and leaves a tangible mark in international relationships? Only by checking that the UN Convention on the Prevention of Genocide has been actually enforced, protective measures have been implemented for threatened populations and ethnic groups, international courts work against those responsible for mass crimes, international institutions, the European Community and democratic States supervise respect of human rights in all parts of the world.
The commitment on remembrance also in Italy has never been linked to social and political mobilization in support of these institutions. Unless there is no constant pressure by international civil society, operations of these bodies will not only not be renewed, they will be constantly blocked by vetoes and interests of great powers.
The exercise of remembrance at an educational level aims at fostering virtuous behaviour on the part of youngsters and individual citizens who constantly have to stem the premonitory seeds of Evil in democratic societies.
It is important to make people understand, as it happened in the Weimar Republic, that regression of customs that can lead to the worst things does not occur overnight, it always progresses in small steps.
This is why it is necessary, as Agnes Heller argued in one of her last writings before her death, to stop hate speech on social media, the culture of contempt and opposition in political debate, the use of evil, racist and anti-Semitic words on the public arena, the emptying of democratic institutions by the advocates of illiberal democracy.
Educate to the taste and pleasure of dialogue, to respect for others, to openness towards people of different religions and cultures, to the practice of friendship in the Polis is crucial to protect democracy.
As Yehuda Bauer reminded us, the preservation of democracies is in most cases the main antidote for prevention of genocide.
It is always international alliance of democracies that leads to resistance to extreme evil.
Professor of genocide, Israel
former Ambassador in Santiago of Chile
director of the Centro Milanese di Terapia della Famiglia
former President of European Jewish Congress
Member of the European Parliament
President of Human Rights Festival and Forum
president of Milan’s City Council
essayist and writer
Milan's Anpi (National Association of Partisans of Italy) president
journalist for Il Fatto Quotidiano, former co-founder of La Repubblica
editorialist of Corriere della Sera
journalist - Foreign Press Association / BBC, Al Jazeera
President of Foreign Affairs Commission of the Italian Chamber and president of Cespi
editorialist of Corriere della Sera
historian and professor at Sapienza University of Rome
City Angels founder
journalist and writer
president of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation
president of Bene Rwanda
founder of BrainCircle Italia
honorary consul of Armenia to Italy and co-founder of Gariwo
CDEC Foundation Director
Imam, teacher and cultural linguistic mediator
honorary president of Unione degli Armeni d'Italia
former European Parliament official
UCEI vice president
retired professor of theoretical philosophy at the Milano Bicocca University
actor, director and musician
semiologist, University of Bergamo
lawyer, former Mayor of Milan
president of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation
Assessor for culture of the Milan Jewish Community
essayist and writer
director of Teatro Franco Parenti of Milano
University professor in retirement
American historian professor of Holocaust studies at Florida State University
Senior Advisor for Governmental and International Affairs at the Israeli Peres Center for Peace and board member of Mitvim
journalist and essayist
The memory of Shoah, when it was born, had a specific and universal character. The theme of never again seemed to be the great issue on which everyone was called to reflect. Remembering Holocaust meant stating vehemently that what had occurred to Jews should not be repeated for any human being. Today, however, we see how that ideal charge seems to fade away...
Today, public remembrance is facing other challenges, as we have seen recently in Italy. We talk about the Nazi past but try to separate it from the current history of the country. An answer to this all came from Liliana Segre, when she remembered that we should not compare the Racist Laws to what is happening today, but that the mechanisms of indifference are very similar. The Senator has talked in the spirit of Primo Levi: we forget and repress the past only when we do not look at the present.
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