Holocaust Memorial Day: How Art Can Help Us Remember

Holocaust memorial in Berlin
A young man stands on a stone of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. Pawel Kopczynski

Art is meant to make you feel something—that's why I will take particular pleasure in awarding the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation's prestigious Medal of Tolerance to the film director, producer and screenwriter Andrei Konchalovsky, next Wednesday.

Konchalovsky's 2016 film Paradise makes uncomfortable viewing, showing the destruction of humanity in Nazi-ruled Europe through the eyes of three characters, a French-Nazi collaborator, a Russian Resistance member and a high-ranking SS officer.

Seventy years after the Holocaust, Konchalovsky is among an extraordinary band of artists, musicians and filmmakers who are helping to keep the memory of Holocaust victims alive. And, in doing so, they're also playing an important role in tackling modern extremism.

In a world where extremists are using and manipulating the past to serve their own agenda, the contribution of these artists ensures that what might seem unimaginable and distant in our collective memories remains as an indelible mark on our conscience.

The European Medal of Tolerance is intended to honor living individuals and active public or private bodies and institutions that have made a significant contribution to promoting and safeguarding democracy, respect and tolerance on the European continent.

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In the past the medal has been awarded to His Majesty the King of Spain, former President of Croatia Ivo Josipović and former President of Serbia Boris Tadić, and the footballer Samuel Eto'o.

As we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day this Friday, we face an era of nationalism, xenophobia and strident antisemitism, where a growing political representation of movements with intolerant agendas are taking their place in parliaments across Europe.

Against this backdrop, it's more important than ever that we learn lessons from the Holocaust to show where exclusion and racism can lead.

The number of people who are still alive to give first-hand accounts of the genocide is shrinking, and soon there will be no survivors left.

History has been the source of inspiration to draw universal lessons for humanity, and the surest way to remember those who suffered and perished in global genocides is by putting faces and names to them, as film and art is able to do.

It is fitting that this year we are presenting the Medal of Tolerance during an official ceremony to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, hosted by the European Parliament and the European Jewish Congress. The power of artists like Konchalovsky to encapsulate the horrors of Holocaust also reminds us of the irreplaceable loss of talent through Hitler's killing machine.

I have spent many years collecting the works of Jewish artists, determined to play a small part in proving that Jewish art in Europe survived the Holocaust and to highlight the enormous contribution made by these figures.

During the ceremony, we will be paying tribute to some of the people who were blessed with the ability to convey not only their own identities, but also that of many others, through literature, art, science and music.

People like Antal Szerb, the noted Hungarian writer and literary scholar killed in a concentration camp in Balf. People like Ernst Cohen, the Dutch Jewish chemist known for his work on the allotropy of metals, and the actress Dora Gerson, both killed in Auschwitz; the Olympic gymnast Alfred Flatow, who died at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and writer Erich Muhsam, executed at Plotzensee prison.

People like Felix Nussbaum, a talented Jewish artist who while in hiding from the Nazis, expressed his distress in rare, strong and fascinating paintings that convey haunting images of the Shoah. Tragically, he and his wife were denounced by a neighbor and murdered a week after they arrived at Auschwitz.

The ceremony is devoted to restoring identities. For as long as we cannot put a name to them, or picture them in our minds, they remain faceless—which is what their killers intended. By celebrating them and cherishing their identities, their loves, fears, careers, relationships and experience, we see them not as a number—six million—but as real people. If we fail, we will be worse off for it.

Moshe Kantor is president of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation.