News & Commentary

Experts: Holocaust Remembrance a Call to ‘Repudiate’ Dehumanizing People

Visitors walk beside the words "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work makes one free" in German) as they pass the main entrance gate of the former Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg, Germany, Jan. 26, 2024, the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. (OSV News photo/Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA (OSV News) — An annual commemoration of Nazi Germany’s slaughter of millions of Jews during World War II is a call to prioritize human dignity, two Jewish-Catholic experts told OSV News.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed Jan. 27, honors the estimated 6 million Jews (including 1.5 million children) killed by Germany’s Nazi regime during World War II. Launched by the United Nations in 2005, the occasion also marks the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest complex in the Nazi system of concentration and death camps, where at least 1.1 million individuals — 90% of them Jewish — were slain.

In total, some two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population were systematically murdered during the Shoah — the preferred Hebrew term for the Holocaust — through asphyxiation with poison gas, mass shooting, hanging, starvation and disease. Prisoners also were routinely subjected to forced labor, sterilization and medical experimentation.

For Catholics, recalling and preventing those atrocities is essential, Philip Cunningham, professor and co-director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, told OSV News.

“The Shoah must be remembered because it was among the most terrifying instances of human evil in all of history,” Cunningham said.

Referencing “Nostra Aetate,” the Second Vatican Council’s document on the church’s relations with non-Christian faiths, Cunningham added that “as Catholics, as Christians, and as sharers with our Jewish sisters and brothers of the biblical legacy that all human beings are fashioned in God’s image, it is our baptismal duty before the Lord to repudiate any dehumanization of people at any time and by anyone.”

Fellow St. Joseph’s professor and IJCR co-director Adam Gregerman said it was “sadly appropriate” that this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day marked a time when “we commit to not just remembering but to acting against violence and hatred today.”

In recent months, there has been a dramatic rise in the U.S. in both antisemitism and Islamophobic activity, especially following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

The Anti-Defamation League recorded what it called an “unprecedented” rise in antisemitic incidents in the U.S. — a 337% increase in physical assaults, harassment and vandalism. The Council on American Islamic Relations also released a statement saying it had tracked a 172% increase in anti-Muslim incidents from Oct. 7 to Dec. 2, 2023, compared to the same period from the previous year.

Several college campuses across the nation have been focal points of such incidents, prompting a Dec. 5 congressional hearing.

In his Jan. 24 Angelus address, Pope Francis said that International Holocaust Remembrance Day serves as a call to safeguard human dignity.

“May the remembrance and condemnation of that horrible extermination of millions of Jewish people and those of other faiths, which occurred in the first half of the last century, help us all not to forget that the logic of hatred and violence can never be justified, because they negate our very humanity,” he said.

Cunningham noted that the “racism at the Shoah’s root is shamelessly manipulated today by the unscrupulous to set different groups of people at each other’s throats.”

“These memories should remind us of a deep obligation we have to all of those who are persecuted for their differences and scapegoated by those who seek power by cultivating hatred,” added Gregerman.

“On this solemn occasion, we stand in solidarity to mourn the 6 million innocent lives lost during the Shoah,” and to “reflect on the ordinary people who chose to fight back against those who perpetrated acts of pure evil,” Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of Philadelphia said in a Jan. 26 statement to OSV News.

Archbishop Pérez also said that “divine love transcends all.

“Embracing that love and sharing it with others is our greatest weapon in the struggle to overcome evil,” he said. “At a time when many hearts are heavy with grief and sadness as a result of ongoing warfare and strife in the Middle East as well as Ukraine and other parts of the world, let us pray for an end to conflict and for a lasting peace.”

By Gina Christian | OSV News