In Times Like These, Why Cancel a Holocaust Event?

In the past few weeks as religious leaders organized memorial services and as interfaith groups offered Kristallnacht commemorations, Americans had the opportunity to observe and participate in the widening circle of compassion, understanding and inclusion that marked these deeply meaningful occasions.

Streams of Judaism that for years have been carping and competitive put differences aside and stood together as the Jewish brothers and sisters we truly are. Denominational differences and organizational elbowing that has sometimes characterized Jewish religious and social life melted away or at least took a back seat to the more important matters at hand.

For Vincent Genovese, Executive Director of the International Diplomatic Corps of Philadelphia and driving force behind a successful six year Holocaust Memorial event, this coming together was a hopeful sign.

Mr. Genovese says that “As an Italian-American and a Catholic I felt it was important to stand in solidarity with the United Nations to observe the International Holocaust Memorial Day that commemorates the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27, 1945. That’s why I came up with the idea to offer an interfaith event to give international diplomats the opportunity to honor Holocaust survivors.”

Thanks to Mr. Genovese’s perseverance and organizational skills the Tampa, Florida community had the chance to experience this unique event. Each year,  for six years, on or near January 27, hundreds of participants of all faiths joined together in a beautiful memorial,  the highlight of which was the moving candle lighting ceremony where survivors were escorted by members of the international diplomatic corps.

One survivor had this to say about her experience.

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it was happening,” says Janine L., a child survivor who participated in the Tampa events that Vincent Genovese organized. “I remember when I was a little eight year old Jewish girl clutching my father’s hands as we escaped from Paris. And now, I’m walking with a French diplomat who wants to light a Holocaust memorial candle with me. I was so touched by his kindness and so grateful to be recognized as a survivor by the country that had abandoned me.”

When his wife’s illness required relocation to Philadelphia, Mr. Genovese had high hopes to share his innovative initiative with Philadelphia Jewish organizations and the Consular Corps located there.

Jewish agencies throughout Philadelphia, including the Jewish Family and Children Services, several synagogues, the Holocaust Awareness Museum, along with individual rabbis and cantors were impressed. They were enthusiastic about working with Mr. Genovese and the Consular Corps.

Unfortunately planning came to an abrupt halt when officials at the American Jewish Committee decided against supporting the initiative and encouraged others to change their minds as well.

What happened? Mr. Genovese says that part of the AJC’s concerns centered on the Yom HaShoah event that they sponsor each spring. Mr. Genovese tried to explain that his commemoration is hardly in competition with Yom HaShoah, especially since it is held in January in tandem with the International Holocaust Memorial Day.

“We invite Consul Generals from European countries,” Mr. Genovese explains, and as he becomes quite emotional when he recalls previous gatherings where these European representatives walk hand in hand with  survivors and together they light a candle. “It’s a moment of healing between a survivor and a representative of a country that was part of the Holocaust – a beautiful moment where respect is restored.”

Living and working in Israel has contributed greatly to Mr. Genovese’s passion to do what he can to eradicate anti-Semitism.  He says, “While I lived in Israel, I committed to myself and to my Israeli friends that I would do my best to assist in the fight against anti-Semitism which has been alive for centuries and from currents incidents it is likely to continue.”

In Tampa, Florida in 2012 when he was appointed as Consular Correspondent of Italy, Mr. Genovese understood how important a vehicle the Consular Corps could be in engaging the interfaith community in the struggle against anti-Semitism. “Consuls generally enjoy the respect and the attention of their own communities, and engaging them in a Holocaust commemoration adds another level of dignity to these events, emphasizing that Europe must never forget.”

Vincent Genovese will never relinquish his one-man struggle against  anti-Semitism. Here’s hoping that in Philadelphia Mr. Genovese will have the opportunity to continue the fight..

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots