Palazzo del Quirinale, 29/01/2013
I wish once again to pay homage to the former internees and deportees, victims and witnesses of the horrors of the camps in Germany, to whom we have just awarded the Medal of Honour.
This ceremony has once again been both meaningful and gripping, given the intensity of the thoughts and feelings it evokes and the rich range of voices to which it offers a platform each year here in the Quirinal Palace. As it draws to a close, I wish to say a few brief words that also – in some way – act as a summing up. My dear President Gattegna, you can imagine how I share in your emotion as we say our farewells after seven years, at least in my capacity as President of the Republic. With you, we have always held deeply shared feelings and thoughts in celebrating Remembrance Day.
This has been one of the recurring engagements that I have most identified with, not just from the institutional point of view but also from a personal – historic and moral – perspective. I also wish to thank Minister Profumo for underscoring the contribution – the drive and support – that I have made, in particular, to the world of education.
You see, I believe that we can, together, be satisfied with the pathway travelled and the results achieved in these years in cultivating the memory of the Shoah; in fostering an active and informed engagement with that memory; in disseminating – in all their extraordinary multiplicity and richness – teachings and messages that are essential not just to gaining an understanding of history but also to building the future.
The most eloquent example comes from our schools. We have heard facts and figures from the Minister that testify to the extent of knowledge of and interest in the Shoah and the diverse and concrete ways it is expressed. This commitment to our knowledge of the Shoah has become an integral part of the schooling and civic education of students throughout Italy.
But the many initiatives that reflect an increased awareness by the institutions, civil society and our citizens equally deserve to be recognised and valued. I would like to thank Mr. De Bortoli for his presentation on the newly opened Shoah Memorial at Milan Central Station’s Platform 21, from which trains left bearing deportees to the camps. A visit there some years ago left a very deep impression on me.
He was also right to remind us of the need to keep up our guard, to keep watch and react against the new and persistent blandishments of negationism and revisionism channeled, for example, through the Web. And to evoke a phenomenon that we risk underestimating, but which is linked, as a grave and polluting factor, to events and political processes unfolding in the Middle East and elsewhere: anti-Semitism as a dimension of Islamic fundamentalism.
Here in Italy deviant propaganda has been translated, in some towns and cities, into violence and subversive dissent by organised groups. Like the events on which the Public Prosecutor’s office in Naples recently took well-founded action. We can only ponder, with dismay, the circulation amongst the young and very young of deplorable ideological trash that is openly neo-Nazi in nature, and the spread of violence of multifold inspiration: from football fanaticism to a form of racism that is once again primarily anti-Jewish. We have even read of plans in Naples to destroy a Jewish shop, or to attack and rape a young Jewish student. Monstrous acts, even just in the uttering, that call for the firmest possible response from the State and the strongest possible mobilisation of all the energies of our education, political and media systems, in support of our democratic ideals.
The memory of the Shoah should be made the cornerstone of an on-going and wide-ranging clarification effort and of a non-partisan conceptual and political battle that extends beyond the historic borders of the persecution and extermination of the Jews (and, let us not forget, of the Roma and Sinti peoples). Not just because racism and xenophobia have multiple targets, which meld with the one that was the focal point of Hitler’s criminal plan. But because supreme values are at stake. Values that in the ghettoes of Cracow, Lodz or Warsaw, and in the camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Dachau, were trodden under foot in a way that no construct of human thought had previously imagined could – catastrophically – occur. Values of civility and humanity that have no boundaries of space or time and which go by the name of respect for human dignity, which was reduced to scraps of humanity, to survival in terror, to the most brutal suppression.
But let me return to my opening reference to a summing up to once again highlight our concrete success, in recent years, in producing an increasingly widespread, deeply felt and creative awareness of the aberrations that fascism, with its anti-Semitism, brought to Italy too. A success embodied, for example, by the discovery and then the denunciation, by so many of our young people, of the evils of the racial laws of 1938. Laws that Benedetto Croce – the 60th anniversary of whose death we recently commemorated – described as one of the “atrocious crimes” that fascism was perpetrating. “The cold dispossession and persecution of the Jews”, were his words, “our fellow citizens, who worked for and loved Italy no more and no less than we did”. One victim of those laws and of that climate was our great Rita Levi Montalcini, who was cut off from all possibility of scientific work and forced to leave. I too think of her with sadness today, so soon after her passing.
But it is not just for the evils of fascism that Italy is present in the historic reconstruction prompted by the memory of the Shoah on Remembrance Day. It is present in a positive sense and in the full light of day, in view of the many forms of solidarity that Italians extended to the Jews being persecuted and hunted down by the Nazis during the German occupation of our country as far south as Rome. It is present in those Italians who earned our country the title bestowed by Israel of “Righteous Among the Nations”. It is present in extraordinary and little known stories like the one – told in a biography only published last year – so late! – in Italian, recounting the life of Enzo Sereni, a thinker and man of action. At just over 20 years of age, he moved to Eretz Israel and became a pioneer broadcasting worldwide the message of the future State of Israel. In March 1944 he left for Bari, at that time already liberated, and from there was parachuted into northern Italy. There he was captured by the Germans and, after months of terrible hardships and acts of heroism, was deported and killed in Dachau.
I will close this long historic digression, which refers to the commitment we have developed – and must continue to develop – to understanding the terms of those decades of “steel and fire” in a century that saw the barbarism of anti-Jewish persecution and the Shoah. And I will move on to some briefer, more strictly political, comments summing up the commitment I have shared with you. I think I can say that in recent years certain unshakeable principles have taken a firm hold in our country’s democratic conscience. First of all, an uncompromising and total rejection of anti-Semitism in all its ideological guises – anti-Zionism, for example. Because what is at stake is not just respect for the Jewish religion, historical tradition and culture but also, and inextricably, a recognition of the spiritual and historic reasons for the birth of the State of Israel. And so, a recognition of its right to existence and to security.
This is the fundamental point that must never be placed in doubt. And a second one follows: the distinction that must not be obscured, between solidarity – on the one hand – with the cause of the State of Israel against all forms of propaganda and threats of destruction, including those voiced by the Iranian leadership, and – on the other – freedom of opinion as to the lines of conduct and the development of the political forces that succeed each other in governing Israel. Critical judgements freely expressed in the political and more general debate in Israel cannot be viewed as hostile – as long as they are formulated with the respect that is the due to any legitimate government of any friendly nation. What is essential is that they do not give rise to equivocal positions regarding the nature and the future of Israel as a State and its independent role in the Middle East and in the international community.
It is in light of this distinction that Italy and Europe can and must play their part in opening up the road to peace in the Middle East, with a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on collaboration between two peoples and two States. Shimon Peres recently stated that “Israel has no better, alternative option to the two-State solution”. Negotiations with the Palestinians [after the UN vote] have become “not more complicated, perhaps, but certainly more necessary”. Once again, let me share here with you the more general vision that has always inspired the Israeli President, my colleague and a man I have known well for decades, a man I esteem and consider to be a true friend. I share his vision and his confidence.
To all our Israeli friends, I wish to say: those “unshakeable principles” that I described as being so firmly established in our country’s public opinion and political consciousness will not be weakened in the near future. Their continuity is guaranteed, also and not least in the natural succession of parliamentary majorities and governments, as occurs in any democratic country.
To conclude, I wish once again to express my appreciation of the efforts of the boys and girls, and the schools, that have distinguished themselves in the “Young People Remember the Shoah” competition. Those students’ voices resonated here today with deep and heartfelt emotion. We owe so much to you, to the younger generations, for all that we have succeeded in building as part of a broader and keenly felt recognition of the significance of the Shoah, and of the lessons to be learned from it. To our young people we owe that great commitment – expressed with an open mind, sensitivity and maturity that is a source of consolation to us all. And so, thank you. And goodbye.