Every year, the Italian Ministry of Education sends a delegation of over 100 students on a trip to Nazi death camps called “Viaggio della Memoria” (Journey of Memory). Guided by historians, Holocaust survivors and Jewish leaders, several high-profile representatives of the Italian government also regularly join the annual trip.
Earlier this month, Italian Education Minister Stefania Giannini and the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), Renzo Gattegna, signed a document to strengthen Holocaust studies in Italian schools. The January 19 signing took place at the historic Tempel synagogue in Krakov, as the two joined this year’s delegation of students.
The ministry trip to Poland is only one of the dozens organized by Italian schools. Every year, thousands of initiatives, conferences, concerts, and performances are held all over the country, while the Italian embassy in Israel organizes a large ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
So at first glance, it appears Italy should take January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, very seriously.
However, the results of a new poll on the subject show a more nuanced situation, and many Jewish leaders and opinion makers have begun to wonder to what extent January 27 effectively keeps alive the memory of Europe’s darkest times.
Conducted by SWG, a leading Italian pollster, with the cooperation of Italian Jewish paper Pagine Ebraiche, the survey interviewed over 1,000 representatives of the adult general Italian population between January 11 and January 13, 2016.
The vast majority of respondents agreed that Holocaust Remembrance Day “helps in developing a conscience” (81%), “helps to keep awareness of these issues alive” (87%), and “raises awareness of the historical facts” (91%).
According to the recent poll, over 60% of Italians feel either “very” or “fairly personally involved” in the observance of January 27.
At the same time, however, the percentage of people who consider January 27 “useless” has doubled in two years, increasing from 11% in 2014 to 22% in 2016. A consistent 16% believes the event should only be for Jews.
Moreover, the percentage of those aware of what January 27 represents decreased more than ten points, from 54.4% in 2014 to 43.8% in 2016.
“These results allow us to understand, how, on the one hand, the culture of ‘memory’ has acquired a high and comforting level of importance in the majority of public opinion, and, on the other hand, that the perception of ‘remembrance’ is encountering a progressive, alarming erosion,” commented Pagine Ebraiche editor-in-chief, Guido Vitale, in an editorial. He called the report a “warning sign” and urged greater quality rather than quantity of initiatives.
The poll also highlighted the different perceptions of Italian anti-Semitism between the general population and the Jewish population.
In the final question of the SWG-Pagine Ebraiche poll, those surveyed were asked, “Do you think anti-Semitism in Italy is still: very present/fairly present/little or not present at all?”
Over 61% of the respondents from the general population said that it is “little” or “not present at all,” with 34% opting for “fairly present” and only 4% for “very present.”
However, when the similar questions were posed to the Italian Jewish population in a different survey, 18% of the respondents described anti-Semitism in Italy as “a very big problem” and 45% as a “fairly big problem.” Another 36% of Jews said that it is “not a very big problem,” and only 1% “not a problem at all,” according to a survey by the London-based Jewish Policy Research.
The report, sponsored by the European Union through its Fundamental Rights Agency, was based on data gathered at the end of 2012 but published in January 2015.
“There is the risk of hypertrophy of [Holocaust] remembrance, but there is also the risk of a fossilization of remembrance, with civil rituals that keep on repeating themselves in a mechanical way, losing their significance,” warned Italian historian Simon Levis Sullam in an interviewed published in the daily Corriere Della Sera.
“The Holocaust Memorial Day should maintain its role as a way for reflecting on the past in order to reject intolerance and racism today. Otherwise, remembering Auschwitz loses its meaning,” said Levis Sullam.
Levis Sullam recently authored the book “I carnefici italiani” (The Italian Executioners), aimed at debunking the myth of “the good Italians.” That widespread narrative claims that Italy was not really guilty for the persecution of its Jewish population, and lays the blame on the Nazis.
Indeed, one of the more controversial aspects most frequently cited by educators and historians of Italy’s observance of International Holocaust Remembrance day is that the remembrance is rarely connected with the acceptance of national responsibility. Rather, it tends to emphasize either the stories of individual Italian righteous or the atrocities committed by the Germans.
And as the aging Holocaust survivors inevitably die, who will be able to counter this revised historical narrative?
*The article was published in The Times of Israel on January 29, 2016.