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Holocaust

German Nazi war crimes suspect, 96, who went on the run goes on trial

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Irmgard Furchner, a 96-year-old former secretary to the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp, is pictured at the beginning of her trial in a courtroom, in Itzehoe, Germany, October 19, 2021. Christian Charisius/Pool via REUTERS

A 96-year-old German woman who was caught shortly after going on the run ahead of a court hearing last month on charges of committing war crimes during World War Two appeared before a judge on Tuesday in the northern town of Itzehoe, writes Miranda Murray, Reuters.

Irmgard Furchner (pictured), accused of having contributed as an 18-year-old to the murder of 11,412 people when she was a typist at the Stutthof concentration camp between 1943 and 1945, was taken into the sparse courtroom in a wheelchair.

Her face was barely visible behind a white mask and scarf pulled low over her eyes. Security was heavy as the judge and legal staff made their way into the court.

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Between 1939 and 1945 some 65,000 people died of starvation and disease or in the gas chamber at the concentration camp near Gdansk, in today's Poland. They included prisoners of war and Jews caught up in the Nazis' extermination campaign.

Irmgard Furchner, a 96-year-old former secretary to the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp, arrives in a wheelchair at the beginning of her trial in a courtroom, in Itzehoe, Germany, October 19, 2021. Christian Charisius/Pool via REUTERS
Judge Dominik Gross arrives in the courtroom for the trial against Irmgard Furchner, a 96-year-old former secretary to the SS commander of the Stutthof concentration camp, in Itzehoe, Germany, October 19, 2021. Christian Charisius/Pool via REUTERS

The trial was postponed after Furchner left her home early on Sept. 30 and went on the run for several hours before being detained later that day.

Charges could not be read until Furchner, who faces trial in an adolescent court because of her young age at the time of the alleged crimes, was present in court.

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She is the latest nonagenarian to have been charged with Holocaust crimes in what is seen as a rush by prosecutors to seize the final opportunity to enact justice for the victims of some of the worst mass killings in history.

Although prosecutors convicted major perpetrators - those who issued orders or pulled triggers - in the 1960s "Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials", the practice until the 2000s was to leave lower-level suspects alone.

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Anti-semitism

83 years after Kristallnacht, Jewish leader warns: Europe can become ‘Judenfrei’ in 10 years

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"There are more Jews in Europe who think that there will be no more Jewish community here in a decade than those who think that there is still hope," declared Rabbi Menachem Margolin, Chairman of the European Jewish Association, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

"I am not saying that in ten years you will not be able to see Jewish people in Europe but I am very worried about the possibility to have Jewish presence in ten years from now," he added as he addressed 160 ministers, parliamentarians and diplomats from across Europe who gathered for two days in Krakow, Poland, to discuss ways to increase Holocaust education and remembrance, fight against antisemitism and develop tools to combat hate speech and incitement in the age of social networks.

The gathering included also a tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps where a candle lighting ceremony and wreath laying were held in the presence of Rabbi Meir Lau, former chief Rabbi of Israel and President of the Council of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Among the speakers at the conference were Moroccan Minister of Culture and Youth Mohamed

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Mehdi Bensaid, Roberta Metsola, European Parliament Vice-President, Hungarian Minister of Science and Education Zoltan Maruzsa, Minister of Education of Rhineland-Palatinate Stefanie Hubig, British Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi, as well as the Speakers of the Parliaments of Slovenia and Montenegro.

The conference took place on the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of Broken Glass, when on 9 November 1938 the Nazis started the anti-Jewish pogroms by  killing Jews, burning 1400 synagogues and destroying shops owned by Jews across Germany and Austria.

“Europe is fighting anti-Semitism, but it is not winning yet. If this upward trend continues, more and more Jews will seek sanctuary in Israel rather than stay in a continent that cannot learn the lessons and cataclysmic mistakes of its past. We are not yet in the state of Judenfrei but, unfortunately we are approaching it,’’  Rabbi Margolin emphasized.

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He noted that Jews who seek to eat according to the customs of their religion cannot do so in certain countries because of laws banning kosher slaughter. And in some cities on the continent Jews cannot walk safely in their traditional clothes.

"Education, he said, is the most effective vaccine in combatting the world’s oldest and most virulent virus."

Addressing the symposium in a video from Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister of Israel Naftali Bennett said: "In the Middle Ages Jews were persecuted because of their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries Jews were reviled because of their race, and today Jews are attacked because of their Nation State, Israel."

"It is worrying that there needs to be a conference about Anti-Semitism in Auschwitz so soon after the Holocaust," the Israeli premier said, adding that "so long as Israel remains strong, Jewish people around the world will be strong."

British Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi stated that: “The Holocaust was a failure for humanity and justice. The worst event in history. Nothing can erase the pain. I can feel the pain because my whole family has run away from Saddam Hussein’s rule. As Kurds, we had to escape. We fled when I was 7 years old from Iraq to the UK."

The symposium in Krakow was followed by a visit of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps where a candle light ceremony and wreath laying took place.

He added: "I understand the important role of UK teachers in Holocaust education. Learning about history is something we sanctify in the UK. Due to the corona, virtual visits to Auschwitz increased. We have zero tolerance for anti-Semitism and racism. Anti-hate education is our top priority in the UK. I urge universities to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism," he said in a reference to antisemitism  on campuses.

German Minister of Education of the Rhineland-Palatinate State, Stefanie Hubig  said: “I work hard to preserve the memory of the Holocaust in schools. We work to bring teachers to visit memorial sites and promote Jewish education in schools. This is all important because, unfortunately, there are still reasons why we must continue to remember.”

In a message from Rabat, Moroccan Minister of Culture and Youth, Mohamed Mehdi Bensaid, stressed that this conference is taking place at a time when more and more radical ideologies promoting anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia are flourishing. "As long as the danger of radicalism hovers over the world, we all have a duty to remind and teach our younger generation in Morocco and around the world about the dark chapter of the Holocaust in human history."

Kálmán Szalai, secretary of the European Action and Protection League (APL) identified education as an important means of reducing anti-Semitic prejudice and emphasized that "the knowledge passed on to new generations can fundamentally influence the choice of values in adulthood".

A recent survey by the APL showed the persistence of anti-Jewish prejudices in the population of several countries in Europe.

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European Commission

‘Europe can only prosper when its Jewish communities feel safe and prosper,’ says Ursula von der Leyen as the EU presents its first-ever comprehensive strategy to combat antisemitism

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On Tuesday (5 October) the European Commission presented the first-ever EU Strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

With antisemitism worryingly on the rise, in Europe and beyond, the strategy sets out a series of measures articulated around three pillars: to prevent all forms of antisemitism; to protect and foster Jewish life and to promote research, education and Holocaust remembrance.

The Strategy proposes measures to step up cooperation with online companies to curb antisemitism online, better protect public spaces and places of worship, set up a European research hub on contemporary antisemitism and create a network of sites where the Holocaust happened. These measures will be reinforced by the EU’s international efforts to lead the global fight against antisemitism, the Commission, the EU’s executive branch, said.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said that ‘’today we commit to fostering Jewish life in Europe in all its diversity.’’

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She added, ‘’We want to see Jewish life thriving again in the heart of our communities. This is how it should be. The strategy we are presenting today is a step change in how we respond to antisemitism. Europe can only prosper when its Jewish communities feel safe and prosper.”

During a press briefing, Margaritis Schinas, the Commission Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, stressed that ‘’antisemitism is incompatible with EU values and with our European way of life. This strategy, the first of its kind, is our commitment to combat it in all its forms and to ensure a future for Jewish life in Europe and beyond. We owe it to those who perished in the Holocaust, we owe it to the survivors and we owe it to future generations.”

Towards a European Union free from antisemitism

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The strategy sets out measures focusing on:

  1. preventing and combating all forms of antisemitism;
  2. protecting and fostering Jewish life in the EU;
  3. education, research and Holocaust remembrance.

Some of the key measures in the Strategy include:

  • Preventing and combating all forms of antisemitism: Nine out of ten Jews consider that antisemitism has increased in their country, with 85% considering it a serious problem. To address this, the Commission will mobilise EU funds and support Member States in designing and implementing their national strategies. The Commission will support the creation of a Europe-wide network of trusted flaggers and Jewish organisations to remove illegal online hate speech. It will also support the development of narratives countering antisemitic content online. The Commission will cooperate with industry and IT companies to prevent the illegal display and selling of Nazi-related symbols, memorabilia and literature online.
  • Protecting and fostering Jewish life in the EU: 38% of Jews have considered emigrating because they do not feel safe as Jews in the EU. To ensure that Jews feel safe and can participate fully in European life, the Commission will provide EU funding to better protect public spaces and places of worship. The next call for proposals will be published in 2022, making available €24 million. Member States are also encouraged to make use of Europol’s support regarding counter terrorism activities, both online and offline. To foster Jewish life, the Commission will take measures to safeguard Jewish heritage and raise awareness around Jewish life, culture and traditions.
  • Education, research and Holocaust remembrance: Currently, one European in 20 has never heard of the Holocaust. To keep the memory alive, the Commission will support the creation of a network of places where the Holocaust happened, but which are not always known, for instance hiding places or shooting grounds. The Commission will also support a new network of Young European Ambassadors to promote remembrance of the Holocaust. With EU funding, the Commission will support the creation of a European research hub on contemporary antisemitism and Jewish life, in cooperation with Member States and the research community. To highlight Jewish heritage, the Commission will invite cities applying for the title of European Capital of Culture to address the history of their minorities, including Jewish community history.

The EU said it will use all available tools to call on partner countries to combat antisemitism in the EU neighbourhood and beyond, including through cooperation with international organisations.

‘’It will ensure that EU external funds may not be misallocated to activities that incite hatred and violence, including against Jewish people. The EU will strengthen EU-Israel cooperation in the fight against antisemitism and promote the revitalization of Jewish heritage worldwide,’’ the Commission said.

Next Steps ?

The Strategy will be implemented over the period 2021-2030.

The Commission invited the European Parliament and the EU Council to support the implementation of the strategy and will publish comprehensive implementation reports in 2024 and 2029.

Member states have already committed to preventing and fighting all forms of antisemitism through new national strategies or measures under existing national strategies and/or action plans on preventing racism, xenophobia, radicalisation and violent extremism. National strategies should be adopted by the end of 2022 and will be assessed by the Commission by end of 2023.

The European Jewish Congress welcomed the release of the EU strategy. “This is an unprecedented and vital document that will act as a roadmap to significantly reduce antisemitism in Europe and beyond,” said EJC President Moshe Kantor.

“It is a commitment to the Jews of Europe that we belong and are a vital part of the European future, and the continent’s decision-makers will be making a supreme effort to ensure Jewish life flourishes,” he added.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder also welcomed the declaration.

“Antisemitism is a huge problem in Europe and it’s high time that the European Union, its Member-States and local authorities adopt a comprehensive strategy on tackling the main challenges on combating antisemitism,” he said.

”I applaud the Commission for putting forward an ambitious plan that encompasses all aspects of fighting antisemitism, Holocaust remembrance and embracing the Jewish contribution to the European way of life. I look forward to working with the European Commission on putting this into practice.”

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Holocaust

80 years since the Babyn Yar massacre is not just an anniversary – It is a call to action

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Six million is much more than a number. It is synonymous with humanity’s darkest chapter – The Nazi attempt to wipe an entire people off the face of the earth. However, we must also see beyond the number. Six million individual lives were lost, none more important than another. Each died their own death. Each was murdered not by a faceless system, but by a fellow human being. If the world is to take Holocaust remembrance seriously, then we must make every effort to remember and cherish each of those lost and to properly commemorate their cruel obliteration, writes Father Patrick Desbios.

My interest in the subject was sparked by my grandfather, who was deported as a French soldier to a Soviet prisoner of war camp in Western Ukraine during World War Two. As I put together the pieces of his story, I also began to uncover the fate of millions of Jews and Roma who were slaughtered in mass shootings in Ukraine. Two decades of hard and painstaking research led to the discovery of countless mass graves. I found that it wasn’t just bodies that were buried in Ukraine and Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, but the memory, any tangible trace of those who had been callously murdered.

I went from village to village, where thriving Jewish communities had been abruptly snuffed out. Time and again, I discovered that so many residents had no idea mass murder had taken place in the fields near their homes. Slowly but surely, the older generation, who had witnessed their Jewish neighbors and friends being led to their death, told the grim tale, many for the first time ever.

In this part of the world, Soviet rule had deliberately suppressed the truth for decades. There is no more powerful example than Babyn Yar. Almost exactly 80 years ago, almost 34,000 Jews were massacred by Nazi forces over a 48-hour period at the Babyn Yar ravine in Kyiv, destroying the city’s Jewish community. In the subsequent decades, the victorious Soviets turned Babyn Yar into a waste dump and built roads and housing over what is Europe’s largest mass grave. Specific Jewish or minority suffering simply did not comply with the prevailing Communist narrative. As a result, virtually no memorial existed to acknowledge the horrific crimes which had taken place at Babyn Yar.

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Thankfully, things are changing. History is finally being recorded. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is establishing a fitting memorial to the tragedy for the first time ever, with a variety of memorial installations and a symbolic synagogue unveiled at the site during the past year. Moreover, the Center is spearheading significant educational and research projects – The names of 20,000 previously unknown victims have been identified and new details of the massacre have been unearthed. A lost world is being brought back to life and voices long forgotten are being heard once again.

Eighty years have passed since the Babyn Yar massacre and we are finally putting right an historic wrong. I am immensely proud to be part of this effort, heading the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center’s Academic Council. I am proud not only because we are at last telling the historical truth, but because failure to do so has appalling consequences.

The ‘Holocaust by bullets’ in Eastern Europe, of which Babyn Yar is its most potent symbol, was unique in its human cruelty. While the gas chambers saw people murdered in an industrial fashion, Nazi death squads brought the murderers face to face with their victims. Time and again, they looked into the eyes of fellow human beings and without flinching, killed them in cold blood. Murder became routine. Lavish feasts often marked the end of a day’s killing. Few, if any, ever expressed remorse. The ‘Holocaust by bullets’ represents man’s ultimate descent into depravity and evil.

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Sadly, such wickedness continues to plague the world in the form of extremism, bigotry and antisemitism. Recently, we have witnessed a global explosion of antisemitic incidents. Meanwhile, I have personally seen the appalling consequences when such hatred is allowed to flourish. Just as I did in Eastern Europe, I have devoted significant efforts during recent years uncovering mass graves in Iraq, documenting the devastating massacres of Yazidis by ISIS. I have witnessed how easy it is for history to repeat itself.

That is why the eightieth anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre is not just an anniversary. It is not only a long-overdue opportunity to properly commemorate a tragedy undocumented for far too long. It is a wake-up call. If the Babyn Yar story remains untold, then the path will be paved towards similar horrors. If the world can allow evil to unfold in Iraq, then it can happen anywhere. Humanity ignores Babyn Yar at its peril.

Father Patrick Desbios is the Head of Academic Council at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.

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