The world is marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day amid a revival of hate-inspired violence and signs that younger generations know less about the genocide of Jews, Roma and others during the Second World War.
In Poland, which was under Nazi occupation during the war, a far-right activist who has served prison time for burning the effigy of a Jew gathered with other nationalists outside the former death camp of Auschwitz ahead of official ceremonies remembering the 1.1 million people murdered there.
Since last year’s observances, an 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was fatally stabbed in Paris and 11 Jews were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbat services, the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.
Human Rights First, a US organisation, recalled those killings and warned that “today’s threats do not come solely from the fringe”.
“In places such as Hungary and Poland, once proudly democratic nations, government leaders are travelling the road to authoritarianism,” said Ira Forman, the group’s senior adviser for combating anti-Semitism.
“As they do so, they are distorting history to spin a fable about their nations and the Holocaust.”
The Polish nationalist, Piotr Rybak, said his group was protesting against the Polish government, accusing it of remembering only murdered Jews and not murdered Poles in yearly observances at Auschwitz.
The accusation is incorrect. The observances at the memorial site pay homage each January 27 to all of the camp’s victims, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Counter-protesters at Auschwitz held up a “Fascism Stop” sign and an Israeli flag, while police kept the two groups apart.
Former prisoners placed flowers at an execution wall at Auschwitz. They wore striped scarves that recalled their uniforms, some with the red letter P, the symbol the Germans used to mark them as Poles.
Early in the Second World War, most prisoners were Poles, rounded up by the occupying German forces. Later, Auschwitz was transformed into a mass killing site for Jews, Roma and others, operating until the liberation by Soviet forces on January 27 1945.
The clashes of views at Auschwitz come amid a surge of right-wing extremism in Poland and elsewhere in the West. It is fed by a broader grievance many Poles have that their suffering during the war at German hands is little known abroad while there is greater knowledge of the Jewish tragedy.
However recent surveys show that knowledge of the atrocities during the war is declining generally.
A study released in recent days by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Azrieli Foundation found that 52% of millennials in Canada cannot name one concentration camp or ghetto and 62% did not know that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
The past year in Poland has also seen high emotions triggered by a Holocaust speech law that criminalises blaming the Polish nation for the crimes of Nazi Germany, something that sparked a diplomatic crisis with Israel and a surge of anti-Semitic hate speech.
The United Nations recognised January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2005.