Barbara Aiello

Never Again and Never Give Up — Italian-American Saves International Holocaust Event

His posture is military-style erect, his manner formal but also quite personable, his English is perfect with just the hint of an Italian accent in his voice; he is Vincenzo Genovese, a man on a mission. And that mission is to rescue an International Holocaust Memorial event that had been summarily and abruptly cancelled.

Beginning in 2013 and continuing consecutively for five years, it has been Mr. Genovese who has spearheaded what has come to be known as one of the most meaningful Holocaust Remembrance events not only in the US but internationally as well.

When asked about how he initiated the project, Mr. Genovese says, “I created the Holocaust Memorial event for several reasons. After having lived and worked in Israel for about 3 years in 1967, I became very attached to the country and the Israeli cause. In 1968, I purchased land in Netanya and in 2013 I built a house on that land.”

Born in Calabria, in southern Italy, deep in the “toe,” of the Italian “boot,” Mr. Genovese also admits to the possibility of crypto-Jewish ancestry when he says, “Bear in mind that with the surname Genovese I know my ancestors came from the Italian city of Genova. During the Inquisition they moved to Italy from Spain and adopted the surname of their city. I know I have a Jewish link somewhere!”

Fast forward to present day and we see in Mr. Genovese a passion to decry Italy’s painful history when the country of his birth aligned with Hitler. And for many of the Italians and Italian-Americans who participate in the Holocaust Memorial remembrance, it is our unique opportunity to in some small way ameliorate an egregious wrong. For all these reasons Mr. Genovese says, “I knew I had to do something. The idea of a remembrance is what came to mind.”

At the time Mr. Genovese served as Italy’s Consular Correspondent affiliated with the Tampa Bay Consular Corps. Based in Florida, USA, TBCC, as it is known, is a prestigious body whose members represent 27 countries, all of whom have  committed their support to the International Holocaust Memorial Day.

Mr. Genovese knew that worldwide there are two distinct Holocaust commemorations; Yom HaShoah, which falls in the spring and marks the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and January 27, a date which commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz.

Genovese says, “In November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly resolved that January 27 should be observed by all countries, including embassies and consular corps offices worldwide as a day to honor the memory of Holocaust victims. It is also a day to encourage the development of education programs about Holocaust history.  I believed our Consular Corps had the moral obligation to take up the cause.”

The program, organized, directed and funded personally by Mr. Genovese, featured remarks by dignitaries including the Consul General of Israel. In addition Holocaust survivors and their children offered moving personal stories, including a keynote speaker who travelled from Germany to share the powerful account of her doting and loving grandfather and her devastation when she later learned that “Grossvater” had been a Nazi.

Along with speeches and testimonials, each year’s program was unique in that  the candle lighting ceremony in honor of the Six Million brought together European survivors of Nazi horror and European consuls who served as escorts to the survivors . And in an amazingly powerful partnership, often these diplomatic escorts represented the Holocaust survivor’s country of origin.

“My family fled France the day before Paris fell to the Nazis,” says child survivor Janine Lew. “Our extended family was murdered and our lives were forever changed.” Ms. Lew emphasized that thanks to her diplomatic escort, France’s Consul General, “As we lit the same candle, in that moment we came full circle. Together we were able touch hands and say, “Never Again.”

So why dismantle this program? That’s the question that participants, Jewish and Christian, were asking as they shared their shock and surprise with Mr. Genovese: “It’s very sad and unfortunate,” …. “This is very disappointing news…” “I am deeply saddened…  “What a sad statement about the world we live in…”  “I am surprised that this has happened…” The  phone calls and emails came from around the world.

Mr. Genovese reports that his call to the Dean of the Tampa Bay Consular Corps, the head of the organization who abruptly cancelled the program, complicated matters even more. The dean praised the Holocaust Memorial event although in  five years he had never once attended the commemoration and even more puzzling, the dean emphasized that it was never formally sponsored by his organization!

Yet praising the event as “historically relevant, aesthetically appropriate and one that has become a great tradition for all of us,” is Adamantia Klotsa, Consul General of Greece and a member of TBCC, who also escorted a Holocaust survivor during the candle lighting ceremony. “I and my Consular colleagues support this event. It is very important and we must find a way to keep it going.”

Regardless of the  politics of title or territory and quips about who said what to whom, it was through Mr. Genovese’s remarkable efforts that the Holocaust Memorial Commemoration has exceeded all expectations. In five years it has attracted more than 2,000 guests to its venue – the Italian Club of Ybor City.

In 2016 Mr. Genovese became concerned about rising Anti-semitism in the US and in Europe and the complacency about the Holocaust that scholars term “Holocaust Fatigue.” That’s when he broadened the scope of the event by adding an essay contest where winners from local colleges and high schools each received scholarship prizes. This year $13,000 in awards were made to winners who wrote about the cause and effect of Anti-semitism, with first place winners reading selections at the commemoration.

However, even given the Holocaust Memorial’s documented success, the Tampa Bay Consular Corps wouldn’t budge. That’s when Mr. Genovese said, “In honor of Never Again, I will Never Give Up,” and true to his promise Genovese worked with international consuls to create a brand new organization – one that will continue the Holocaust Memorial Event. In two short months, Genovese plowed through the politics to create and register a brand new organization, the International Diplomatic Corps of Florida. This new entity consists of diplomatic representatives from 32 countries, each of whom has pledged to support  the International Holocaust Memorial event.

So, next January, Mr. Genovese will once again be in the driver’s seat, and those of us who have participated in the memorial event couldn’t be happier. Survivors and their children, rabbis, cantors and members of the Jewish and Italian-American communities have experienced firsthand the impact the event has made  locally and statewide, and because so many European representatives are involved, that impact extends worldwide as well.

Thanks to Mr. Genovese, in January, 2018 Holocaust survivors will stand hand in hand with esteemed diplomats from their home countries – countries that directly persecuted the survivors and murdered their families, and from which many were forced to flee. Standing together they will share, sing, pray and promise, “Never Again.”

And no small thanks to the “testa dura,” (Italian for “stubbornness”) of one Vincenzo Genovese our community’s global compassion and understanding will triumph over political posturing. HaZaak, Mr. Genovese. It is my hope that good men like you will stand undeterred and in the future will have less difficulty trying to do the right thing.

Rabbi Barbara Aiello has represented Italy at the Tampa FL Holocaust Memorial event and has provided an opportunity for nearly 50 Holocaust survivors from the Aviva Senior Living Campus in Sarasota, FL, to attend the event each year.

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