Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration and extermination camp complex in Poland, where 1.1 million people, 90 percent of them Jews, were killed between 1941 and 1945. Approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at this place.
Many trusted that with the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies, the scourge of a deadly ideology that advocates for the physical annihilation of an imagined enemy would have been eradicated once and forever in Europe. But the crimes committed in Paris, the most recent episode in a bloody trail of terror attacks in different European countries since the turn of the century, are a somber reminder of its persistence.
In the wake of the attacks, Paris’ central synagogue was closed on the Sabbath for the first time since World War II. The French Jewish community, the third largest in the world — somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000 people — is shrinking because of fear. For the first time ever, France heads the list of countries of origin for immigrants to Israel, which expects 10,000 French Jews to arrive in 2015. That would mean more than 22,000 Jews leaving France for Israel in the space of only four years.
Roger Cukierman, president of the Federation of French Jewish Communities, recently noted the choice of the parents of Jewish French schoolchildren: Attend public school and endure intimidation, insults and threats, or attend an institution potentially targeted for terrorist attack — a Jewish school.
This important anniversary should serve as a reminder that the conditions that made a monstrosity like Auschwitz possible have not disappeared. The Nazis considered that the extermination of the Jews was a precondition to the world’s well-being. The militants of radical Islam, who again kill Jews in Europe, are inspired by the same deadly belief.
Auschwitz is not only an event of the past, but also a possibility of the present. Tragically, genocide takes its devastating toll in our own time. That is why remembrance of the Holocaust is a responsibility — to face the reality of crimes perpetrated, to honor the victims and the survivors, and to maintain a meaningful dialogue between history and our present day.
Yet remembering the past also means acknowledging — even in these darker times for French and European Jewry — the upward trajectory of Christian-Jewish relations, particularly with the Catholic Church.
Oct. 27, 2015, will mark the 50th anniversary of the issuance of Nostra Aetate. This papal promulgation — embedded in the revolution of Vatican II — recast the Catholic theological foundation of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Anti-Semitism was condemned as a sin and the purported collective Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus was annulled. Two thousands years of Christian theological anti-Semitism — at last — had been directly addressed.
The Jews — dispossessed, discriminated, subject to persecution and worse — in the eyes of European Christians were vulnerable to the historical forces that led to the Shoah (Holocaust).
Again — in the shadow of the Holocaust and this hateful legacy — this sea change as demonstrated by papal visits to Israel, expressions of brotherhood and sisterhood for Jews by Christians, and now a joint celebration of Nostra Aetate over the course of this year between Christians and Jews in the Twin Cities and North Dakota and South Dakota is a reason for hope in our difficult times.
This week, Holocaust remembrance ceremonies will take place in countries across the globe. In the Twin Cities, a commemorative event titled “Bearing Witness” will be hosted at the University of Minnesota, and the Apollo Male Chorus will perform “The Liberation of Auschwitz: A Choral Concert” to mark this important anniversary.
The moral, political and educational message contained in these observances can be summarized in one phrase by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi: “It happened, therefore it can happen again. And it can happen everywhere.”
Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Alejandro Baer is the Stephen C. Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.