Later this month an award ceremony will be held in Bologna that, on the surface, seems quite benign. Apparently the award and subsequent celebration is designed to honor those, such as farmers and breeders, whose honest efforts have come under attack by animal rights groups.  But the award is called the “Hitler Award,”  and, although the organizers say that their activity is nothing more than a way to highlight Hitler’s 1933 animal protection law, any positive promotion of Adolph Hitler risks diverting attention  from his  mass murder of European Jews  – something which makes the Bolgna initiative highly suspect and worthy of comment.

The plaque which will be presented to the award winner features the image of the Führer in front of Auschwitz, dominated by the word “Animal Reich.”  Let me tell you what a phrase like “animal reich” brings to mind.

In April, 1945 my father was one of many who liberated the Buchenwald death camp and as a child I recall how he spoke about the horrors of the Nazi regime. Because my father could speak to camp survivors in their native language, he heard firsthand accounts of horrific Nazi behavior, including how camp guards set vicious dogs on Jewish inmates and forced others Jews to watch as these dogs ripped their victims to shreds, right before their eyes.

Fast forward to 2013 in Italy, on European soil, the continent where six million Jews were tortured and murdered not even 70 years ago and, hard as it is to believe, we are subjected to a contest in honor of Adolph Hitler, the Nazi murderer himself. The fact that a competition like the “Hitler Award,” is even conceived let alone celebrated is more than troubling and indicates a significant change in the Italian public’s general tolerance for anti-semitic remarks and activity.

As an Italian-American living in Italy for ten years, as a Jew and as a rabbi, I find the “Hitler Award” competition and celebratory event yet another sign that anti-semitism is alive and well in Europe generally and in particular, in Italy. And I am not alone.

Just last year, Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, cautioned Europeans about the troubling rise of anti-semitism throughout Europe.  Dr. Kahn cited the results of the 2012 Anti-Semitism Worldwide Report, which chronicled the return of political Nazism to Europe.  Dr. Kantor said, “In 2012 far-right parties gained momentum that has been unprecedented since the 1930’s and that these parties have crossed red lines that we had hoped never would be crossed again.”

Worse still are the findings reported recently by the Times of Israel (among other news outlets), that 22 percent of European Jews hide their Jewish identity.  Parents advise their children to hide their Jewish jewelry under their shirts and to refrain from wearing a kipah, the traditional Jewish head covering.  In fact, several years ago, when I was serving as rabbi in a small progressive synagogue in Milan, my neighbors were so worried that they came to the door of my home and as a group of five concerned ladies, begged me to hide my Star of David necklace and take the kipah off my head. “Rabbina, devi nascondere queste cosatine ebraiche, perche` e` pericoloso!” (Rabbi, you must hide your little Jewish things because it’s dangerous!”)

In a yearlong study by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights that just concluded last month, researchers reported that 60 percent of the Jews in Italy reported a significant rise in anti-semitic incidents over the past year alone.

What is the lesson here? I submit that the “Hitler Award,” exemplifies a disturbing trend of intolerance and hate that is on the rise not only in Italy but throughout Europe. Creeping Nazism is a slow but steady trend that minimizes the Holocaust, demeans the memory of those murdered and diminishes the suffering of the survivors. Creeping Nazism, in the form of the “Hitler Award,” erodes human rights and teaches our young people that the Holocaust is nothing more than a distant memory, a blip on the screen of modern European history.

The “Hitler Award”  deserves our attention and condemnation  because, in the name of “free speech,” Nazi sympathizers have found yet another opportunity to worm their way into legitimate society – exactly what they did so successfully in the 1930’s and what they are attempting to do yet again today.