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Italy remembers the Holocaust

Nobel winner addresses parliament in main remembrance day event

27 January, 17:39
Italy remembers the Holocaust (ANSA) - Rome, January 27 - Italians remembered the Holocaust on Wednesday with a series of events and ceremonies around the country commemorating the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.

One of the signature moments of Holocaust Remembrance Day this year was a parliamentary address by Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, only the fourth non-MP ever to take the podium before the Italian lower house.

A survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz and perhaps one of the greatest living witnesses to the atrocities committed there, the Romanian-born writer and scholar was greeted with a standing ovation from a full house of MPs, diplomats and holocaust survivors present to hear him speak.

During his speech, Wiesel, now a professor at Boston University, urged the Italian government to take a tougher line on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an adamant Holocaust denier who has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction.

''How can you have relations with a head of state who first denies the Holocaust and then says he wants to destroy a member of the United Nations,'' he asked.

Wiesel also asked the government to adopt a new law classifying suicide terrorist attacks as crimes against humanity.

''We not be able to stop the attackers themselves, but there are ways we can stop their cohorts''. He went on to extol the importance of hope to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

''Peace in the region may be a dream for now, but we must believe that someday it will come true''.

He also took the opportunity to launch an appeal for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held prisoner by Palestinian militants since 2006.

''You have the credibility to make this appeal heard,'' Wiesel said while facing the top government officials seated at his side.

Observers said Wiesel had to break for applause five times over the course of his speech, after which he was greeted by President Giorgio Napolitano, Premier Silvio Berlusconi and opposition leaders Pier Luigi Bersani of the Democratic Party and Pier Ferdinando Casini of the Catholic-centrist UDC.

Before his address, Wiesel met with Napolitano during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Rome together with a delegation of holocaust survivors and their families.

Napolitano gave out over 80 metals of honour during the ceremony, including one for Emilia Marinelli Valori, a woman from a town near Venice who ''risked her life to save many Jews from deportation and death'' between 1938 and 1945.

In his own address to parliament, Berlusconi said the day offered an opportunity to reflect on ''discrimination and deficits of democracy in our own, globalized society''.

He also encouraged Italian young people to see some of the special events held around the country, such as an exhibition of photos, original documents and personal affects of deportees at the Vittoriano complex in Rome.


Despite the general feeling of solemnity in Italy on Wednesday, a few minor acts of vandalism served as a reminder that anti-semitism has not been totally eradicated.

During the night, a thoroughfare in Rome was covered with spray painted swastikas, Celtic crosses and anti-Jewish slogans.

One of the buildings defaced is home to the local Jewish Community President, Riccardo Pacifici, who played down the graffiti down as a "sad stunt by puerile youngsters''.

''This is a sign of weakness, because it's plain to see from the amount of attention today's events have drawn that Italy is a changed country".

''Anyone who thinks they can recreate a climate like the one that led up to the Holocaust is sorely mistaken,'' he said.

But Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said it would be a mistake to underestimate the extent of anti-semitism in Italian society.

Frattini pointed to a recent study estimating that over 44% of Italians feel ambivalently about Jews.

Carried out by the Italian Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, the report said that up to 12% of the population had a outright anti-semitic feelings towards Jews and Israel.

''We assume that Italy is not an anti-semitic country, yet we find hatred rearing its head again out of a climate of religious intolerance''.

''This shows why it's so important to make people understand the full extent of the Jewish tragedy,'' he said.

Photo: A scene from Auschwitz

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