Remembrance of the Holocaust, seventy-seven years later, Observerid

European Union flags flying in front of the headquarters of the European Commission. Photo credit: Thijs ter Haar, CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – Seventy-seven years have passed since the Holocaust but it is still being remembered and it still has influence on events happening now and how we perceive and react to them, both individually and as governments.

The 27th of January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Jakarta or Italian Cultural Centre in Jakarta held a discussion about “Memory as a Vaccination Against Indifference” on the day. The director of the Italian Cultural Institute, Maria Battaglia explained that in 2005, the day that the Red Army entered Auschwitz and liberated it was chosen as International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the United Nations General Assembly to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust where 6 million Jewish people and millions of other people were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945 by Nazis.

Non-Jewish victims included amongst others physically and mentally disabled people, homosexuals, Romas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, Socialists, Poles, Soviet prisoners-of-war and anyone else who opposed the Nazis. The remembrance commemoration is also to encourage the development of educational programs about Holocaust history to help prevent future acts of genocide.

Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Jakarta, Maria Battaglia. Photo courtesy of Istituto Italiano di Cultura Jakarta.

“What we see with the ceremonies and meetings held every year to commemorate Holocaust Day, is an insistence on studying, dwelling on and understanding the past,” commented Ms Battaglia. Why is this?

Prof Salvatore Cingari who is a professor of History of Political Thought from the University for Foreigners of Perugia explained it by quoting the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

He explained that history shows us the importance of memory. It is a source of knowledge of events and facts and not just the moral accusation against certain crimes. Before making accusations we need to understand what happened and history helps us with this as it provides facts based on documents and analysis by scholars.

During the Second World War Italy was on the side of Germany and the Nazis, and was also a Fascist state under Mussolini. So, the remembrance is also especially important for Italy. As part of the Holocaust remembrance commemoration the Italian Cultural Institute screened the best known Italian film about the Holocaust, ‘Life is Beautiful’ by Roberto Benigni. It is a tragi-comedy about the Holocaust which was of course, extremely difficult to make as the screenwriters and director had to walk a fine line not to have the film appear crass and indifferent to the suffering of the many victims of the concentration camps. Roberto Benigni who has been described as a joyful person said that the ability to laugh and to cry comes from the same point of the soul. “I’m a storyteller: the crux of the matter is to reach beauty, poetry. It doesn’t matter if that is comedy or tragedy. They’re the same, if you reach the beauty.”

He is not Jewish but created the film because learning about the Holocaust affected him so deeply and he insists, “Each life of everybody belongs to me too. … I want to tell about their misery… and I must have the right and the duty… to say life is beautiful until the last step in my life. Even in the most horrible situation, like the extermination camp.”

Roberto Benigni and the actress Nicoletta Braschi at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 where La Vita e Bella won the Grand Prix. Photo credit: Georges Biard, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The film was an enormous critical and commercial success and one of the highest-grossing non-English language movies of all time. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in New York included it in the top five best foreign films of 1998. It won many international awards including the Grand Prix at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival as well as, three Academy Awards in the United States.

Roberto Benigni, was inspired by the book ‘In the End I Beat Hitler’ by Rubino Romeo Salmonì with its irony and black humor. He was also inspired by his father Luigi Benigni who was in the Italian Army and like thousands of Italian soldiers was sent to concentration camp when Italy surrendered to the Allies and broke its allegiance with Germany. Later in life, so that his children would not be afraid when he told of his time there Luigi recounted his experiences humorously.

To the critics of the film who said that its humour trivializes the suffering during the holocaust Roger Ebert, the American screen critic and historian said, “Life is Beautiful is not about Nazis and Fascists, but about the human spirit. It is about rescuing whatever is good and hopeful from the wreckage of dreams. About hope for the future. About the necessary human conviction, or delusion, that things will be better for our children than they are right now.”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. Photo credit: Kuhlmann /MSC, CC BY 3.0 DE (, via Wikimedia Commons

On Holocaust Day, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen gave a very moving speech where she asserted that European Union freedom is built on the memory of the Holocaust, “… because the very reason why our Union was founded lies in two simple words: never again, nie wieder.

Preserving the memory is the first step to avoid that history repeats itself. With the strategy, we are working so that all schools in Europe teach the history of the Shoah (the Holocaust)… And we will encourage students to learn about Europe’s Jewish culture and traditions… because it is part of our European culture and history.

The Union we want to build is a place where everyone can be whoever they want to be. A place where a Jewish woman like Simone Veil, a survivor of the Holocaust, can raise to become the President of this proud European Parliament. A place where everyone is entitled to the same rights and is treated with the same dignity. This is what ‘keeping the memory alive’, truly means. A continent that is finally united in its beautiful diversity.”

For Germany of course, Holocaust Day holds special significance because of Germany’s role in the War. Von der Leyen has also said that Jewish life is an integral part of the European Union future. A question then arises: in cognizance of the many Muslim guest workers and now refugees that have settled in Europe, have Muslim culture and tradition also become an integral part of European Union culture and history, and its future?

This is not an easy question to answer. Werner Kraus, a German art historian and friend of Indonesia responds that except for members of the AFD (Alternative für Deutschland or Alternative for Germany which is a right-wing populist party), all German politicians endorse the statement: “Islam belongs to Germany” or “Muslims are part of German society”. Also a visible number of the German public (journalists, the weatherman, shop owners, scientists, medical doctors and lawyers) have “migration backgrounds” and this group is growing fast. The way up is not as blocked any longer as it was 20 years ago. Leading politicians are children of Turkish, Iranian and/or Arabic immigrants. Omid Nouripor, born 1975 in Teheran has just been elected national chairman of Germany’s Green Party and the next chairperson of the national trade union movement will be a woman with roots in the Middle East as well.

However, he also thinks that large parts of the European or German population are not yet ready to subscribe to the statement “Islam belongs to Europe”. It still needs time for the necessary transformation. This process is made easier with secularization gaining ground in Europe with many Christians leaving their church beliefs. The same tendency is visible within German Muslim groups, albeit not in the same numbers or with the same consequences, as leaving Islam can be connected with a lot of social problems and involve major identity questions for them.

Raya Nunes who teaches inter-cultural communication and management in The Hague, helping managers and teachers make use of cultural differences, agrees and says that if one looks at the number of Muslims living in Europe, Muslim culture and history should also be accepted as an integral part of European life but it is not. As an example, she cites the fact that a woman wearing a headscarf in Holland is often criticized and must defend or at least explain her choice to do so whereas a Christian nun wearing a wimple is accepted.

However, Raya also doubts that Jews have been completely accepted in the Netherlands either. In Amsterdam live quite a few Jewish people, so when Ajax plays in football matches against the Rotterdam football team, some of the fans will scream anti-Jewish slurs at them. Then, look at the public holidays in Holland: they are only the national ones and Christian feast days. She compares this to Indonesia where there are public holidays for the major Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist feast days; or Surinam which has public holidays for all those feast days as well as Daoist and Jewish feast days.

Dr Rosalia Sciortino Sumarjono is a cultural anthropologist and development sociologist from Italy and says, “As I come from Sicily, the answer is clearly yes, Muslim culture and tradition are an integral part of European culture and history. Sicily was under the rule of Arabs and Muslims for centuries and so much of our culture has been influenced by them. Also, the Roman army went to North Africa and returned with Muslim influences. Not only things like food, words or architecture but there is also a tradition of Muslim and Arabic thinking. Muslim philosophers preserved, translated and commented on ancient classical European texts that inspired Renaissance thinkers. They also invented the scientific method and modern university system and pioneered medical and agricultural techniques.”

In the past relations between Muslim and European rulers has not been an easy one as reflected in the flag of Sardinia, thought to commemorate the Aragonese victory against 4 Moorish princes in the Battle of Alcoraz in 1096. Photo credit: Angelus, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( /licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

She says that there is a debate going on in Europe about this, with one side saying that European culture is based on Judeo-Christian traditions and another side claiming that Europe has always been diverse. The debate includes how to integrate the various people coming into Europe. She also says that even now Jewish people are not always treated well in Europe so, the ideal of different faiths and races living together in tolerance is there but the reality has not yet reached that level.

In France, Chloe Dupont (not her real name) who has a background in history and is interested in the interreligious relationship between Christianity and Judaism, agrees that Jewish culture and traditions are a part of European culture and history because firstly, Jewish people have been in France for centuries and directly contributed to European culture through trade, the arts and science. Also, Christianity is the foundation of European culture and is based on Judaism which has a mother daughter relationship with Christianity. She feels that Islam does not have such a relationship.

French statesman and one of the founding fathers of the European Union, Robert Schuman in 1929. Photo credit: Agence de presse Meurisse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the founders of the European Union, French statesman Robert Schuman said, “Europe would not exist without the Hebrew Decalogue, Greek philosophy and art, Roman jurisprudence and republican ideas. However, it is the Christianity which is the soul of Europe. It has shaped Europe as we know it …Europe will be Christian or it will not be at all.”

Dupont agrees with Schuman and thinks it would make sense to see this stated in the European Constitution but says that the secularists would not allow this. Another difficulty is that both Judaism and Islam do not separate religion from the state which is one of the most fundamental principles of the European system. Nevertheless, European Jews have become Europeans over time. She says that this has not yet happened with Europe’s Muslim population but perhaps as they grow in numbers this will happen and the story will change.

Anda Djoehana Wiradikarta is a French academic researcher and lecturer in intercultural management. He says that even in France with its stress on laicite or the constitutional principle of secularism, its Christian heritage as the foundation for European culture is accepted. He also agrees that the Jews are an integral part of European culture as they contributed in a huge way to European culture from composers to philosophers etc. However, he feels that many French people believe that Islamic civilization ceased to contribute to European culture after the 13th century and even in academic circles it is viewed as mainly backward because of its position on women. He says, “In a poll taken 10 years ago three quarters of French people regard Islam as being incompatible with democracy because of terrorist attacks, human rights abuse and gender inequality.”

In his opinion, Indonesia is a country that proves this not to be the case as the majority of its citizens are Muslim and yet it is both a democracy and very pluralist – but the French in general know very little about Indonesia. It is because of this that he has written a book about Indonesia entitled Indonésie: l’unité dans la diversité or ‘Indonesia: unity in diversity’ and contributes to an online site in French: En Indonésie, le réexamen du Coran est à l’ordre du jour – Asialyst. He believes that it is important for French people to understand more about Islam and how it is practiced in other countries.

He is of the opinion that a country like Bosnia Herzegovina whose population is 51% Muslim has a better chance at becoming a member of the EU because it has no problem with secularization whereas a country like Turkey which has become even more religious under Erdogan has more difficulties.

Indonésie: l’unité dans la diversité by Anda Djoehana Wiradikarta Photo credit: Gope-editions

At present Bosnia Herzogovina has been recognised by the EU as a “potential candidate country” for accession since 2003 and is on the current agenda for future enlargement of the EU. Negotiations for full membership of the EU for Turkey were started in 2005. However, in 2016 the EU criticized Turkey for human rights violations and deficits in rule of law and since then Turkey’s accession negotiations have come to a standstill.

A report from the Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the European Parliament about ‘Islam, Islamism and Islamophobia in Europe’ states that Muslims are at home in Europe where they have been present for many centuries. Islam, Judaism and Christianity – the three monotheist religions – share the same historic and cultural roots and recognise the same fundamental values, in particular the paramount value of human life and dignity, the ability and freedom to express thoughts, the respect of others and their property, the importance of social welfare as well as the pre-eminence of written norms ensured through a last judgment. Those values have been reflected by European philosophies and been included in the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless, there are Islamist (radical Islamic groups) in Europe and on the other side Islamophobia – and the two feed each other.

It recommends that inter-religious education be supported by member states, that institutions of higher education and research in Europe should provide Islamic studies and that contacts between Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans and Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia should be facilitated, in particular among young people, students and teachers.

Esteban González Pons, a member of the European Parliament asserted in 2020, “Europe is not about where you come from, but it’s about where you want to go.”

Europe may not quite have reached ‘where it wants to go’ but it certainly appears to be heading in the right direction. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)