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NEWS “Remembrance, Italy takes the lead”

ihraAt the beginning of March, Italy assumed the Chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The outgoing Chair Ambassador Benno Bättig of Switzerland handed over the Chairmanship to Ambassador Sandro De Bernardin of Italy. The handover took place at the Italian Embassy in Berlin, and was attended by members of the diplomatic corps representing IHRA’s 31 Member Countries as well as by students of the Albert Einstein Gymnasium. Following is the interview to Mr De Bernardin that was published in the latest issue of Pagine Ebraiche.

By Guido Vitale

The future of democracy and the future of Europe will be played for on the field of Remembrance. Besides celebrations, academic research, cultural creation, the Remembrance of the Shoah still is a hot subject for politics and a testing ground for west societies which are experiencing the wave of populisms and the erosion of civil coexistence. But the field of Remembrance will be also one of those which will see, starting from the next days, Italian diplomacy in a leading role. Our Country is indeed taking the presidency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the international organisation based in Berlin which deals with the politics concerning the Remembrance of the Shoah and its preservation. Head of the Italian delegation, Ambassador Sandro De Bernardin, who has had a long experience in different diplomatic missions and a happy experience as representative for Italy in Israel, decided to go right to Berlin to take the baton of the IHRA from the outgoing Swiss presidency.
A sign with a high symbolic value which will take place at the Italian embassy in Berlin, in that very same building, considered one of the most fascinating of the German capital city, raised just before the Second World War to symbolize the tragic alliance between the fascist regime and its German allied.
Today the work on Remembrance witnesses Germany on the front line and Italy engaged like never before in order to make the memory of the Shoah not only a formal thing, but an active factor of knowledge and protection for all the civil societies.

Of course, in a moment of such heated politics at home, there is the risk that the attention is taken from your work, but from any point of view, Ambassador, Italy is taking on an important responsibility.
No doubt. The IHRA is a very complex and delicate mechanism, also due to the involvement of very different realities working in it. But this is what makes the organization so important.

In what way and what kind of differences do the involved Countries bring?
We have a group of Countries, starting with Germany, which already have a solid and considerable experience in the field of Remembrance. We have some realities like the northern Countries which would really like to see a transition of this organization into an ONG dealing more generally with the protection of the prosecuted people, thus moving away from the original vocation set by the funders. We have East European realities which started very late to deal with the past.

May we talk about some specific case?
Hungary, leading the organization in 2015 while on its own streets, among many contradictions, monuments to statists with an antisemitic past were being raised.

What about Poland?
Of course, the issue of the new law recently approved by the Polish parliament will be examined by the IHRA. And various prospects will be opened. I can’t say whether it will end with no common point or if it will generate a diplomatic work. The role of the Italian lead will be that of keeping, as much as possible, the international team together, even in so hard a time. And to stand together we should not fear to aim with ambition to a broadened horizon; it’s easier to stand together when looking far.

What is the IHRA for?
Among the institution’s cornerstones there’s the defence of Remembrance, the development of academic research, the preservation of memorial sites and the evidence of what happened during the Shoah, the development of educational projects, the museums, the communication, a work group dedicated to antisemitism and denial in contemporary societies and a study group for the Rom genocide.

Does the organization deal only with the past?
Obviously, only within a definition work do these matters affect our life and that of the Countries we live in; just think about the relevance of the debate on migration flows, the reject of different identities. I believe the problem is that, broadening the horizon dramatically, the organization runs the risk of losing its effectiveness. While it should aim at making the difference, effectively affecting the society, instead.

This is one of the necessary reflections in this year of Italian presidency. The politics of Remembrance is more and more delicate and important. it will be necessary to make some choices, if we want the IHRA to rise to the occasion. A classified strategic report has just been filed and it contains various directions. Our task is to address these points.

Will the Italian year be engaged with this rethink of the structure only?
No, there’s much more to do. And among other deadlines we will have to examine the applications for membership of new members, like Australia and Romania. And above all engage in the education field, also investing on better educational tools. The guidelines which minister Fedeli recently approved will be useful for this matter because they include important concrete references and Italy has thus the opportunity to become a laboratory and a reference point on an international level.

Ambassador, at the Berlin ceremony you wanted the works of the Italian students who stood out in the contest “Youngsters remember Shoah”. Do you want to take also other experiences acquired by Italy?
We are working on several initiatives. We should also remember that this year of Italian presidency corresponds symbolically with the 80th anniversary of the approval of the antisemitic persecution laws by the fascist regime. A tragic moment in the Italian history which will be spoken of in the next few months. We are working with Rai for the making of animation movies, we are working on a documentary which shall gather many witnesses of Italian survivors. Many other opportunities to meet and further discussions will be held during the year.

For those who work in the IHRA, is there a feeling of losing a central role in the perception of Remembrance?
The situation is very complex and articulated. From an institutional point of view, I would rather talk about a deep maturation. This is the second time Italy has held the lead of the organization. The first one was in 2004.
And we can see a difference. The great engagement of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, the attention and the expectation given to these working months in front of us, testify a new engagement season. There was not such engagement and ambition in the past.

But what is the point of IHRA? Can it really influence reality?
The organization is for giving inspiration and conditioning the activities and positions of the States. We can name several instances of its concrete action, other than the adoption of a definition for antisemitism.
Making the Czech Government buy an area which was a site of Jews bloodsheds, so a site of Remembrance risking being lost.
Making Serbia characterize its sites of Remembrance with contexts which respect the historical truth and as free as possible from the one-way rhetoric typical of the communist regimes; making the Hungarian Government rectify measures which would justify the refusal to provide evidence on what happened during the genocide. A lot of actions which left a mark. But there is still a great work to do and we better not lose sight of the challenges in front of us.

Sandro De Bernardin represented Italy in Israel from 2004 to 2008 and accrued a deep knowledge of Judaism. The Italian ambassador, born in Venice in 1949, has been a political adviser at the Embassy in Paris before he started to work as a diplomatic representative for Italy in Sweden, Zaire and Canada. He held the title of Director-General for Political affairs and Security of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and he has been a member of the Italian delegation to OECD, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Italian diplomat is currently the head of the Italian delegation to IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. He was appointed directly by the Minister for Education right while Italy is taking over the helm of the international organisation for 2018-2019.

Translated by Rachele Ferin and Ilaria Vozza, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste University, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.
Picture by Dario Laganà.