Yesterday, Holocaust Memorial Day was in most of the headlines and events were organised across the country in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. Today, however, the economic crisis is, once again, the main feature of most front pages. Will those who were remembered yesterday have to wait another year to be remembered once again? One of the issues raised by the existence of an annual official day of commemoration is that those who it is designed to remember risk being forgotten throughout the rest of the year. Has Holocaust Memorial Day become an excuse to push aside the painful and difficult memory of the victims of the Holocaust during the rest of the year?
This is not the only question raised by yesterday’s commemorative events. Who is Holocaust Memorial Day designed to remember? In theory, the ‘Holocaust’ only refers to the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution before and during the Second World War. The term is of Greek origin and literally means completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) sacrificial offering to a God. The biblical word Shoah meaning calamity became the standard Hebrew term for the Holocaust as early as the 1940s. There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to whether or not the term also refers to the numerous other victims of Nazi persecution, such as political activists, homosexuals, the disabled and mentally ill, Slavs and Roma. In the light of the controversies surrounding the definition of the Holocaust, Holocaust Memorial Day consequently raises similar issues: are the other victims of Nazi persecution included in remembrance ceremonies? If not, is there, or should there exist, a specific day to remember each of the victim groups?
The Roma is one group whose memory has often been forgotten, yet it is believed that up to 500,000 died in mass shootings and Nazi gas chambers. There is a particularly high concentration of Roma in Romania and the story of Nazi persecution in Romania is one of those that has been less told. Following Romania’s attack on the Soviet Union, the dictator Ion Antonescu was able to recover the eastern region of Trans-Dniester (today mostly part of Ukraine), which became a depot area for Romania’s Jewish and Roma population.
In October 2003, a commission called the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, or commonly known as the Wiesel Commission, was established by the former president Ion Iliescu to research and write a report on the Holocaust in Romania and to make recommendations for educating the public on the issue. Led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, it examined the persecution of Romanian Jews from December 1937 to May 1945, as well as the persecution of parts of the Roma population between 1942 and 1944. The report, published in November in 2004, claimed that the number of victims in Trans-Dniester is difficult to establish mainly because the lists of deportees were not systematically put together. Nevertheless, it is estimated that 280,000 and 380,000 Jews were murdered or died as a result of the deliberate polices of Romanian civilian and military authorities and over 11,000 Roma were also killed.
The final report of the commission is available online on the website of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, which is Israel’s official memory to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust established in 1953.
For more information on some of the controversies surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day read our article, Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain
For an insight into the general debate surrounding the commemoration of historical disasters, read The Memory of Catastrophe