Remembrance Day falls on January 27th: what is its meaning

Remembrance Day commemorates the Holocaust, that is, the massacre of six million Jews and several million other people, perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War. The term Holocaust can be understood in two different ways: for some authors it refers only to the extermination of the Jewish people (with this meaning the term Holocaust), for others to all the victims of Nazism. What is certain is that millions of Jews and other “inferiors” were deported to special detention centers Extermination camps and then killed in the gas chambers or forced to work in unsustainable conditions until they died. The causes of the Holocaust they must be traced back to anti-Semitism and the racist ideology of Nazism; the war provided the opportunity to carry out the massacre.

Remembrance Day

The Memorial Day it was established throughout almost all of Europe, in North America and in Israel to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Not all countries have chosen the same date, but January 27th is the most widespread because it was the day on which, in 1945, the army of the Soviet Union liberated the largest extermination camp, that of Auschwitz.

The entrance to the Auschwitz camp

In Italy it was Remembrance Day introduced in 2000 and commemorates not only the Shoah, but also the Italian victims of Nazism and the Jews persecuted by the fascist regime. The day is celebrated by schools, television and institutions with specific cultural initiatives.

But how was it possible that the Nazis sent millions of Jews to their deaths? To understand it it is necessary to start from the concept of anti-Semitism.

The origin of the Holocaust: anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism, understood as hatred against Jews, has existed since at least the time of ancient Rome. Jews have been discriminated against for centuries, even suffering mass deportations and massacres, throughout the Christian world. The reasons were different. First of all, hatred had a religious matrix: the Jews were discriminated against because they did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Furthermore, despite living mixed with other peoples, the Jews have always retained their own identity ethnic and religious identity, which made them appear as a sort of foreign body to society. Until the nineteenth century, however, if a Jew yes converted to Christianity he no longer suffered discrimination (with some exceptions).

Burning of Jews in the 16th century

Between the 19th and 20th centuries, anti-Semitism took on a new form and it was linked to racism, that is, to the idea – which today we know to be without scientific foundation – according to which human beings are divided into different races from each other. The Jews were considered a “race” in their own right and, consequently, they were denied the possibility of saving themselves through conversion.

In the twentieth century, racially motivated anti-Semitism spread to several European countries. In Germany, it was one of the cornerstones of the ideology of Nazi Partyfounded in 1919 and came to power in 1933. In the first years of government, the Nazis introduced laws that they heavily discriminated against Jews and organized mass violence against them. Furthermore, Nazi ideology considered “inferior” many other categories of people: disabled people, political opponents, homosexuals, blacks, Slavs and others.

After the start of the Second World War, the actual extermination began.

The beginning of the Holocaust: the Einstatzgruppen and the Wannsee conference

Between 1939 and 1941 Germany occupied Poland and a large portion of the Soviet Union, two countries in which millions of Jews lived. Some special units of the SS, known as Einsatzgruppen, were tasked with eliminating the Jews, political opponents and other categories of people. The victims, killed by shooting or in vans transformed into gas chambers, were approximately 1,400,000.

Summary executions of prisoners in Poland

For the Nazis it was still little. In the winter of 1941-42 Hitler and his hierarchs decided to implement the “final solution”, as they called the deliberate extermination of the entire Jewish people. The organizational details were discussed by some managers during a conference held in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, on January 20, 1942.

Auschwitz and the other camps: the extermination machine

The most intense phase of extermination took place between 1942 and 1945 and was implemented through deportation to extermination camps. Most of the fields were located in Poland: Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec and, above all, Auschwitz are some of the best known.

The extermination was organized in a “scientific” way. Jews and other “inferiors” came raked in cities and placed in transit camps or in real ghettos. They were later taken to the extermination camps aboard armored trains. The deportations took place in almost all the countries that Germany had occupied and in those with which it was allied, i.e. much of Europe.

Course map (credits Dennis Nilsson)

Once in the camps, the deportees in less than optimal physical conditions were led to the gas chambers; the others were killed with a different system: they were forced to work like slavesin terrible conditions and with insufficient nutrition, to the point of exhaustion.

The other victims and the body count

Not only Jews, but also other categories of people considered inferior or dangerous were victims of the Holocaust. They were also deported to the extermination camps homosexuals, political opponents, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, subjects deemed “asocial”.Other places of death were concentration camps for Soviet and Polish prisoners of war, considered an inferior race. Even though they were not sent to the gas chambers, the prisoners often died due to the heavy work, undernourishment and the harassment they suffered from their jailers (the treatment reserved for prisoners of war in Western countries was better).

Prisoners of the Buchenwald camp in 1945

Historians estimate that the overall victims of Nazism were between 12.5 and 17.5 million (without considering deaths due to war). Of these, approximately 5,900,000 were Jews, equal to approximately 78% of the European Jewish population.

The collaborators and the case of Italy

Germany benefited from the support of the allied countries, which collaborated, out of opportunism or conviction, in the roundups and deportations. This is what also happened in Italy, because the Republic of Salò – the state founded in 1943 by Mussolini in the north of the country – collaborated with the Nazis in the search and detention of Jews in transit camps, from which they were deported to Auschwitz.

The Fossoli transit camp, near Modena (credits: Fondazionefossoli)

THE Italian citizens instead they had heterogeneous attitudes: many rejected anti-Semitism and some did their utmost to save the Jews; others had no qualms about helping the Nazis identify people for deportation.