Belgium’s commitment to teaching the Holocaust

Like other countries of Western Europe, Belgium celebrates in early May the end of World War II.

Holocuast memorial flame 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Holocuast memorial flame 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Like other countries of Western Europe, Belgium celebrates in early May the end of World War II. At a moving commemorative event held on May 7 at the Antwerp Deportation Monument, the Belgian foreign minister, Mr.
Didier Reynders, made a strong appeal for enhanced education of the Holocaust and for the continued fight against intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism. He pledged full support of the Belgian government for the objectives and the activities undertaken by the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, presently chaired by Belgium.
The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research is an intergovernmental body whose purpose is to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research both nationally and internationally.
Initiated by then-Swedish prime minister Göran Persson in 1998, an international forum of interested governments to discuss Holocaust education was organized in Stockholm in 2000. Professor Yehuda Bauer was invited to head the academic committee and Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize laureate, was asked to become the honorary chairman of the conference.
The forum took place in Stockholm on January 27-29 2000, and was attended by 23 heads of state or prime ministers, and 14 deputy prime ministers or ministers from 46 governments. A joint declaration was prepared, circulated in advance and, after some minor changes, unanimously adopted.
This, the Stockholm Declaration, is the foundation of the ITF. It commemorates the Holocaust and by adding the Hebrew term “Shoah,” in brackets after the word “Holocaust,” makes clear that the main concern of the ITF is to teach about, remember and research the genocide of the Jewish people in World War II. It then goes on to say that Nazi Germany also perpetrated a number of other major crimes, thus contextualizing the Holocaust. This opens up the opportunity for the ITF to also deal with the genocide of the Roma, which took place at the same time and at the same or similar locations, and was committed largely by the same perpetrators.
The Declaration then demands the opening of all archives containing material related to World War II and the Holocaust, a strategy against Holocaust denial which the declaration condemns in no uncertain terms. The major context of the Holocaust, namely genocide in general, was pointed out as well, the Holocaust being its most extreme example.
Governments were asked to establish annual memorial meetings and activities designed to remember the Holocaust.
Ever since the 2000 forum, it’s been essential for states wishing to join the ITF to commit to the Stockholm Declaration.
The Belgian chairmanship aims to keep the membership focused on their commitments to the principles of the Stockholm Declaration and to continue to work towards their full implementation.
THE TASK FORCE currently has 31 member countries, including Argentina, Canada, Croatia, Norway, Poland and the US.
Professor Yehuda Bauer, former chair of the Yad Vashem Research Institute in Jerusalem, is the Task Force’s honorary chairman. The Belgian chairmanship is organized in close cooperation with the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office and in harmony with the Flemish, French and German speaking communities. Regular consultations take place with interested authorities and with civil society, in particular representatives of the Jewish community of Belgium.
One can truly say the whole of Belgium is in one way or another involved.
The 2012-2013 program centers on four priorities, of equal importance and relevance: 1) research to improve the current policies and practices of Holocaust education.
2) accessibility to Holocaust-related documents in public and private archives.
3) research and document the mass graves and killing sites in the whole of Europe.
4) exchange the best practices to improve the Holocaust remembrance days.
Obviously the fight against anti-Semitism remains a permanent theme within the ITF and especially for Belgium.
In this respect, the government has made a priority of the fight against all forms of racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, intolerance, extremism, Holocaust denial and violence. One of the first measures taken is the reinforcement of the anti-Semitism monitoring unit within the Center for Equal Opportunities and Opposition against Racism.
The Belgian chairmanship will promote the above-mentioned four themes at the regular meetings in Mechelen at the end of June and in Liège in December. We have requested the various ITF working groups to present proposals for multi-year work-plans on these themes and we will stimulate debate and research. We hope to be able to lay the foundations for result- and action-oriented outcomes.
From May 5 to May 10 the “Train of the 1,000” has, in a 30-hour journey, transported 1,000 young people from Belgium and nine other European countries from Schaerbeek (Brussels) to Auschwitz. An educational program preparing these 16- to 18-year-old people for the confrontation with the horrors of the darkest pages of European history, had been developed.
On May 8, Prime Minister Di Rupo, accompanied by Auschwitz survivors and by Interior Minister Mrs. Joëlle Milquet, parliamentarians and high authorities made the trip to visit, together with the 1,000 young people, the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In an address to the young people he gave them a message on democratic and human values and encouraged these young adults to resist temptations of anti-democratic and rightist tendencies. The moving message of Baron Paul Halter, a 92-year-old survivor of the camps, brought many a tear to the eyes of the young and the not-so-young audience.
At this moment in time, when only few direct witnesses and survivors of the deportation and the Nazi camps are still with us, their testimony is an important source of inspiration. This year alone three towering figures of the Jewish community of Belgium, who have decisively contributed to the Holocaust education and remembrance, have left us.
The work undertaken by David Süsskind, Georges Schnek and Natan Ramet will have to be continued by their children and their grandchildren. And by all of us.
In September we will inaugurate a monument in memory of the hidden children in the very South of Belgium, the Province of Luxembourg, and a week later the completely new museum and memorial will be inaugurated in Mechelen, at the site of the transit camp of the Dossin Barracks, from which almost 26,000 Jews and Roma were deported during World War II.
Belgium will continue its endeavors at all levels, nationally, in Europe and internationally, but especially toward the young generations. They must know that one has a choice to be a collaborator or to resist, to be a perpetrator or a bystander. Indeed, they may find inspiration in Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “The world is dangerous not because of those who do harm, but because of those who look at it without doing anything.”
The writer is an ambassador and the Belgian chair of the 2012 Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.