When the White House scribblers were putting the finishing touches on the State of the Union address, President Obama took a moment to commemorate memory. Monday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most notorious of Hitler's death camps. "Each year on this day," he said, "the world comes together to commemorate a barbaric crime unique in human history."
But not quite the whole world. Anti-Semitism thrives in the Middle East, where certain politicians vie to see who can say the ugliest things about Jews, and such sentiment is surging in Europe. Bloody pig's heads were sent to the Israeli embassy, the Jewish Museum and a synagogue in Rome on the Saturday before the commemoration. Several thousand Frenchmen gathered on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Paris, chanting "Jew go home," and gave the "quenelle salute" -- a variation of the Nazi heil created by a popular French comedian who has many imitators on the street and on the Internet.
Even Holocaust Remembrance Day has its critics, who argue that the expression of easy sentiments does little to reduce the rising tide of anti-Semitism and may, in fact, dumb down memory. Since the United Nations established International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005, anti-Semitic incidents have grown across Europe and the Middle East.
Nevertheless, important voices were raised this year in commemoration. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the purpose of the grim anniversary: "The United Nations was founded to prevent any such horrors happening again." Catherine Ashton, the foreign affairs chief of the European Union, said the occasion reminds everyone "to continue fighting prejudice and racism in our own time."
Lawmakers from the United States, Israel and Europe toured Auschwitz testifying to the cry, "Never again." Others died in the Holocaust, too, including homosexuals, gypsies and the racially "impure." But the commemoration reminded the world, killing 6 million men, women and children simply for being born a Jew was an attempt to extinguish a race.
Many victims of the Holocaust remain nameless today, and the text of a new commemorative book of 1,250 pages consists of one word, "Jew," repeated 6 million times. "That's how the Nazis viewed their victims," Phil Chernofsky, the book's creator, told the New York Times. "These are not individuals; these are not people. They are just 'a mass we have to exterminate.'" No one would have believed what happened to them (and some still don't) if there hadn't been liberating soldiers to see for themselves and survivors to speak of the atrocities after the Third Reich was dispatched to the trash bin of history. We remember for their sake -- and for our own.
One grim memory was retrieved with the recent discovery of the unpublished letters of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, offering another footnote on the "banality of evil," in Hannah Arendt's descriptive phrase. In a letter to his wife, Himmler juxtaposes his visit to a death camp with a commonplace acknowledgement for her: "I am traveling to Auschwitz," he wrote. "Kisses, your Heini." Her affection was returned in an ironic characterization of their love: "I am so lucky to have such an evil good man, who loves his evil wife as much as she loves him."
It's another reminder of how glibly evil can be trivialized. Layers of the horror of the Holocaust continue to unfold as dedicated researchers discover new killing sites. Auschwitz remains the best-known symbol of the Nazi evil, having seen over a million deaths by the gassing of men, women and children. But historians have now documented that more than a third of the 6 million Jews were slain in their homes, forests, city streets, country roads and hidden quarries. Most of these murders took place behind the Iron Curtain, where even after the war, it was more difficult to speak up than in the West. As survivors age, these fading memories become a compelling source of history.
Anti-Semitism is an ancient hatred that seeks to camouflage its shame by calling itself "anti-Zionism." It's a transparent deception. The state of Israel was created by the United Nations in 1948 to enable Jews to return to a homeland as protection against the anti-Semitism that persisted in Europe through the 1930s.
Millions are still exposed daily to rants and raves that blame Israel for all the world's ills. David Nirenberg, in "Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition," which describes the problem, suggests that such prejudice, if harnessed to military power, could be as deadly for the Jews as it ever was in the 1930s. Iran, which boasts that it will destroy Israel, now enjoys an easier yoke of sanctions and continues to pursue nuclear weapons. "Never again!" sounds as much a prayer as a cry of defiance.