Commentary: On Holocaust Remembrance Day, holding fast to values of freedom and dignity

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Gino Bartali, a two-time Tour de France champion , helped save 800 Jews by delivering forged documents hidden in his bicycle's handlebars and seat, He also hid a family in his Florence apartment. LaPresse

 

In 2005, the U.N. General Assembly declared Jan. 27 - the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi concentration and death camp - International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The intolerance and hatred that led to the planned murder of all Jews living in Nazi-controlled countries, as well as the targeting of Roma and Sinti, political dissidents, and homosexual men more than 70 years ago, are both historical fact and present-day warning.

Italy's story during the Holocaust is heroic and wrenching. Despite the fascist government under Mussolini, many Italians bravely were involved in rescuing the vast numbers of its Jewish citizenry, as well as many Jewish refugees.

Gino Bartali, a bicycling champion, used his training routines to ferry forged documents. In the Abruzzo town of Fossacesia, Monsignor Tommaso Tozzi told his parishioners that Jewish refugees would be coming and must be hidden in their town. When the residents expressed concern about Nazi retaliation, he said, "Pretend it is Jesus knocking at your door asking for hospitality. Will you slam the door in His face?" The residents of Fossacesia harbored 63 displaced families.

Italy's Archbishop Giovanni Ferrofino, a Vatican diplomat, saved the lives of 10,000 Jews by aiding their passage from Nazi Europe. Monsignor Beniamino Schivo hid Jews in convents. Italian Partisans in Riccione hid Jewish children in hills and caves and brought them food and clothing.

Italy adopted a national Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2000 to honor the memory of the victims and to encourage educational programs about its origins in the hope of preventing future acts of genocide. Italy now fills a seat in the U.N. Security Council and holds the presidency of the G7, the bloc of seven industrialized democracies - the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom - that meets to discuss global economic and security issues.

Holocaust remembrance and education is a continued priority for the Anti-Defamation League. Its core dual mission, as stated in its 1913 charter, is "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all."

More than 220 schools and organizations in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware participate in ADL's No Place for Hate program by committing to challenge bias, name-calling, and bullying, and fostering respect. ADL works closely with local and national law enforcement agencies to prevent and educate about hate crimes. ADL Philadelphia is also sponsoring its annual Walk Against Hate and multicultural festival at the Navy Yard on May 21 and hopes that thousands will walk with us.

Together, Italy and the ADL reject all manifestations of religious intolerance, harassment, or violence against persons or communities based on ethnicity, political, or religious beliefs.

Primo Levi, an Italian Jew and Holocaust survivor, wrote: "It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere."

We believe the memory of the Holocaust should be a cornerstone of ongoing efforts to promote respect for human dignity and the worldwide condemnation of all forms of intolerance and hate. Holocaust remembrance is important on many levels, but perhaps most importantly it should serve as a warning to all that vigilance and determination are necessary to ensure that genocides, which have reoccurred many times in the decades since the liberation of the Nazi camps, are stopped, once and for all time.

Democracy and the acceptance of differences are fragile commodities, easily eroded without undying commitment and vigilance.

Today we stand together, united in our unshaken support for the supreme values of human dignity, freedom, and liberty enshrined in both the Italian constitution ("All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions") and the Declaration of Independence - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Andrea Canepari is consul general of Italy in Philadelphia. andrea.canepari@esteri.it

Judith Meyer is board chair of the Pennsylvania/Southern New Jersey/Delaware Region of the Anti-Defamation League. judith@judithmeyer.com

There will be a discussion on "Nazi Medicine, the Holocaust, and the Problem of Collective Evil" at noon Friday at Thomas Jefferson University's Dorrance H. Hamilton Building, 1001 Locust St., Philadelphia.