Congressional Holocaust Commemoration 2022 goes virtual

This year’s theme was “Heroes and Memory.”

 NOBUKI SUGIHARA, son of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, stands next to Soli Ganor (right), one of thousands of Jews saved by Sugihara during World War II. The photo was taken during a street-naming ceremony in honor of the late diplomat in Netanya in 2016. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
NOBUKI SUGIHARA, son of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, stands next to Soli Ganor (right), one of thousands of Jews saved by Sugihara during World War II. The photo was taken during a street-naming ceremony in honor of the late diplomat in Netanya in 2016.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

On January 27, Sephardic Heritage International (SHIN-DC) hosted an impressive congressional commemoration for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The US Congressional Holocaust Commemoration is an event that occurs annually, and unfortunately due to the pandemic, this year’s like the last, was virtual. 

This year’s theme was “Heroes and Memory,” featuring the testimony of David Baruch, a Romaniote Jew from Patras, Greece, who described his family’s moving story of tragedy and survival. Members of Congress and foreign dignitaries also participated, including the ambassadors of Greece, Israel and Portugal, and a public affairs minister of the embassy of Japan in Washington.

Baruch and his family were saved by Christian friends and a member of their community, who forged documents stating that they were Christian Orthodox.

Part of what makes this commemoration special is that it showcases speakers from diverse backgrounds and provides education on often-omitted Sephardic and Romaniote narratives of the Holocaust, as opposed to focusing solely on Ashkenazi ones.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez noted that Sephardic Jews in Europe and the Mediterranean were also targeted by Nazi Germany’s efforts to systematically eradicate all Jewish people, and were among the 6 million Jewish lives extinguished during the Holocaust.

US VP Joe Biden looks at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during a visit to the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem March 9, 2010 (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)US VP Joe Biden looks at pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during a visit to the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem March 9, 2010 (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

“We must pledge to speak out against antisemitism, hatred and bigotry in all of its forms, and we must honor the memories of the 6 million Jews lost by educating future generations about the horrors that are unleashed when hatred goes unchecked,” Menendez said. “That is how we turn our solemn promise of ‘never forget’ into a vow, ‘Never Again.’”

Greek Ambassador to the US Alexandra Papadopoulou, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, and Portuguese Ambassador to the US Domingos Fezas Vital were among the event’s participants. Each noted that as antisemitism rears its ugly head in the US and across the globe, the message of the congressional commemoration is as relevant and urgent as ever.

“The fact that this is a congressional commemoration sends a very strong message from the heart of American democracy about the value of rejecting all hate and racist discrimination in general and antisemitism in particular, and we highly appreciate it and take this opportunity to thank members of Congress who lend their voice in support of this important initiative,” Ambassador Herzog stated.

The families of the Righteous Among the Nations also participated, including Dimitris Kiakidis whose grandparents saved Greek Sephardic Jew Donna Rodrig during the Holocaust – the only member of her family to survive the genocide. Like the ambassadors, Dimitris noted the importance of the commemoration, particularly with a rise in antisemitism around the world.

The Congressional Holocaust Commemoration also featured the families of Righteous Among the Nations Chiune Sugihara of Japan and Aristides de Sousa Mendes of Portugal, both diplomats who against the instructions of their respective ministries, issued visas that allowed thousands of Jews to escape the Nazis.

Participating family members of Aristides de Sousa Mendes who helped thousands of Jews escape the Vichy French regime, included Canadian MP Alexandra Mendes who took ill and sent a message that was read alongside remarks shared by Louis-Philipe Mendes to honor the late Portuguese diplomat, his grandfather.

Nobuki Sugihara – son of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara who helped thousands of Jews escape Europe – also participated. “Once I asked my father why he issued so many visas against the orders of the Japanese Ministry,” Sugihara recalled. “He said that he just felt pity for those people who had no place to go. Those were his words, nothing heroic or nothing like a god, just simple, he wanted to save people.”

Sugihara survivor Nathan Lewin of Washington showed the commemoration’s participants the Sugihara visa that allowed him at the age of four, with his parents, to escape from Nazi Germany to the Caribbean island of Curacao, owing to the “absolutely heroic deeds of Chiune Sugihara.”

“I am happy today to thank Nobuki who is carrying on, I think, the tradition of his father, and so many people who were really righteous and saved Jewish lives, and are being honored here today,” Lewin said.

Embassy of Japan spokesperson Masashi Mizobuchi stated, “It’s a privilege to share with diplomats from around the world to remember the tragedy of the Holocaust and to honor the stories of survivors. These stories inspire us all to continue to work together to build a just and peaceful world and never let such horrors come to pass, ever again.”

SEPHARDIC HERITAGE International director Afraim Katzir introduced Ahmed Obeid Al Mansoori, a former member of the UAE’s parliament and founder of the Crossroad of Civilizations Museum. He noted that the museum, in some ways like the Righteous Among the Nations being honored, “goes against the tide” by having the first permanent Holocaust exhibit in an Arab country.

Participating from Dubai, Al Mansoori said that the museum’s own commemoration earlier that day with a survivor who gave testimony “signifies that our region is going in the right direction, as sadly antisemitism, xenophobia, and racism are increasing all around the world.

“When we talk about peace and the union that happened lately between Israel and the UAE, it’s a comprehensive peace which two nations have started politically but it’s very important to look at it in a comprehensive way,” Al Mansoori also said. “The most important part is people-to-people. It’s not just people only celebrating the good days, but we need to have compassion for one another and through this Holocaust gallery we are establishing that dialog.”

The distinguished speakers for this year’s congressional commemoration described the horrors of the Holocaust and also raised concerns that many have over rising antisemitism around the world. 

The event also presented a hopeful side, showing that people of different backgrounds, few as they were, defied the Nazis and in some cases their own governments, to rescue Jews. 

It was also encouraging to see people from diverse backgrounds in the US and across the world come together to stand with Jewish communities against antisemitism, and to share and apply the message of “Never Again.”

The writer, who recently finished his IDF service as a lone soldier, is a graduate of Arcadia University’s Master’s program in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. He lives in Hadera, where he writes about Israeli and Near Eastern politics, international relations, and aboriginal cultures.