Germany unveils memorial to Holocaust's Roma victims

Germany Sinti Roma Holocaust Memorial
BERLIN -- A memorial dedicated to Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust was unveiled in the center of the German capital Wednesday after years of delay caused by a dispute between the artist and the city over costs and design.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurated the new monument, joined by President Joachim Gauck and dozens of Roma survivors of World War II. The memorial features a small pedestal jutting out from the center of a round pool of water on which a fresh flower is to be placed daily. A poem titled "Auschwitz," by Italian Santino Spinelli, is engraved around the pool's rim, which is circled by jagged stones laid in the grass.

The memorial, designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, is in the Tiergarten, Berlin's largest urban park, which lies across the street from the Reichstag, the German Parliament building.

The exact number of Roma, also known as Gypsies, killed in the Holocaust is unknown, but experts estimate that up to 500,000 could have died. The Nazis deemed the Roma racially inferior and shipped them to concentration camps, where many were killed and subjected to medical experiments.

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Hungary demands return of $8 million for Holocaust survivors

Hungary is demanding that a United States organization return roughly $8 million in payments for Holocaust survivors, claiming it has failed to properly account for the money. The American organization, in turn, says it provided reams of information and accuses Hungary of stonewalling.

More than half a million Hungarian Jews perished during the Holocaust. Five years ago, the country agreed to provide $21 million over a five-year period to help impoverished survivors of Hungarian descent, working with a Hungarian organization and the Claims Conference, based in New York, which handles compensation programs for people who suffered Nazi persecution. 

The money was supposed to be a down payment to help aging victims while Hungary worked with the organization on the longer, painstaking process of property and asset restitution tied to the Holocaust. The funding ranges from $800 to $2,000 per person annually to provide medicine, hearing aids and other necessities to the poorest of Hungarian survivors, Claims Conference said.

Two years ago, after a new government came to power in Hungary, commissioner Andras Levente Gal began challenging how the money had been spent, asking for more details about the funds. The Hungarian government halted its payments to the organization, holding on to $5.6 million.

“It is impossible to identify the individuals eligible for compensation or the grounds for their eligibility” based on the documents it provided, the Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice said on its website  this week, arguing the organization had shown that the funds were distributed “on a far-from-equal footing.”

Gal is now seeking to reclaim roughly $8 million from the group, along with interest and added charges. The U.S. organization counters that it has repeatedly provided detailed reports to the Hungarian government on how the money was distributed, including one exceeding 400 pages in length that included the names of all of the beneficiaries, what they got and when.

“Since this government commissioner has taken over they have not released one penny and have used all kinds of excuses why they can’t release the money and why they won’t,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of Claims Conference.

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'Miss Holocaust Survivor' -- honoring history or cheapening it?

Survivor

To some, “Miss Holocaust Survivor” sounded like the ultimate triumph:  crowning and championing a woman who had suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. To others, the idea of invoking Nazi terrors in the shallow setting of a beauty pageant was macabre and obscene, defiling its memory.

“It’s something a decent person shouldn’t even think about,” Lili Haber, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, told the Associated Press as the pageant went on in the Israeli city of Haifa.

Though the Israeli pageant was held by a group that assists Holocaust survivors, billed as a “celebration of life” focused on courage and endurance rather than physical beauty, it nonetheless maddened those who thought a beauty pageant was no way to honor such sobering stories. Few debates are more delicate as the horrific events fade further into the past: How should Holocaust survivors be honored?

“What I worry most about is people would say the Holocaust was just an ordinary event,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “That's why those who want to protect its legacy insist that its uniqueness not be trivialized. Tomorrow there will be a murder and they’ll say, ‘It’s like what happened in Auschwitz.' ”

The rampant use of “Holocaust” and “Nazi” as shorthand for everyday outrages has appalled Hier and others devoted to remembering the killings. Although Jewish groups plead to “never forget,” the risk of diminishing the Holocaust pains them. Hollywood has made stacks of fictionalized films set against the murder of millions of Jews, some showered in praise, others condemned as cheap distortions.

Many moviegoers cringed at the Roberto Benigni film “Life Is Beautiful,” saying that  it gave a sanitized picture of concentration camps. The Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy “Inglorious Basterds,” which imagines a band of Jewish vigilantes plotting to kill Hitler, came in for criticism as a flashy trivialization.

Offscreen, some of the most vulgar and alarming episodes of Holocaust misremembrance have used Hitler as a kind of brand, pasting his images on restaurants or bottles of wine. But even among those with the best of intentions, like the pageant planners, how to memorialize the Holocaust remains fraught.

“The better ones treat the event with fear and trembling and respect. If they don’t, then they usually falter,” said Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.

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Israeli lawmakers discuss commemorating Armenian genocide

Turkey
JERUSALEM -- Israeli lawmakers dedicated a session of parliament Tuesday to discussing whether to commemorate the Armenian genocide, a controversial and sensitive issue that could further aggravate the country's strained relations with Turkey.

When ties were stronger, Israel refrained from official recognition of the killings of minority Armenians early in the 1900s as genocide, citing diplomatic reasons. But diplomatic relations have been strained since Israeli soldiers killed nine Turkish activists in 2010 during an attempt to block a flotilla of aid bound for the Gaza Strip.

Some Israeli lawmakers say the time has come for their nation to finally divorce the issue from diplomatic concerns and take a clear, moral stance.

"The Armenian genocide has been swept under the rug" for fear of upsetting foreign relations, said Zehava Galon, who initiated the debate. "We must not politicize this matter," said Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset speaker, a longtime supporter of Israel making a clear statement of recognition.

The Knesset came to no decision on the motion Tuesday but plans to hold another session on the issue.

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Israeli highway comes to a halt to remember Holocaust [Video]

In Israel, sirens wailed for two minutes across the country to commemorate the Holocaust on Thursday, a day devoted annually to remembering the Nazi genocide that killed 6 million Jewish people and millions more of other backgrounds.

In the video above, traffic on one highway comes to a halt as Israelis pull over or simply stop, get out of their cars, and listen to the siren, their heads bowed. In Israel and elsewhere, people remembered the genocide by reading the names of victims, recounting their stories and praying.

This year, Israeli leaders invoked another threat as they recalled the Holocaust -- the idea of a nuclear Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that "those who dismiss the Iranian threat as a whim or an exaggeration haven't learned a thing from the Holocaust,” a comparison he has made before.

His remarks stirred up controversy in Israel and worldwide as people gathered from Texas to Moldova to mark the somber day. Holocaust survivor and famous author Elie Wiesel argued it was unacceptable to compare anything to the Holocaust.

"Iran is a danger, but to claim that it is creating a second Auschwitz? I compare nothing to the Holocaust," Wiesel told the Jewish Post.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

 


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