Facing a new anniversary of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, this year we commemorate the 80th anniversary of numerous trascendental choices. Sometimes, history gives us the opportunity to compare processes that changed people’s lives. During 1942 different situations worldwide determined the future of Jewish People.
After the United States Congress declared war on the Japanese Empire -as a response to the Pearl Harbor attack-, several choices were made. While Germany was supposed to be the scenario of the Wannsee Conference, the political and military authorities of the US and the United Kingdom celebrated the Arcadia Conference, a secret military strategy summit held in Washington DC where the Europe first decision was taken.
This meeting finished on January 14, less than a week before the Wannsee Conference, held in Germany on January 20, took place. The last one, probably more “famous” -or infamous-, was a senior government official leaders meeting organized by Reinhard Heydrich to ensure the cooperation of governmental and administrative offices to implement the Final Solution. For many years, authors assumed that this day the “Decision of the Final Solution to the Jewish question” was taken. Today this changed and we assume it was probably taken orally by Hitler, one of his meticulous actions to destroy evidence.
The Wannsee Conference was secret and reunited various ministries -Interior, Justice, Foreign- and head officers like A. Eichmann. He made a list of the amount of Jews living in European countries listing them in two groups -controlled or occupied by Germany and allied or neutral states. This “Jewish census” was the quantification of death and the final number of Jewish people was eleven million. This means that before the Final Solution the Jewish population in Europe was twice the amount of final victims.
There’s something significant about the Wannsee number: when a copy of the protocol was found in 1947 -and became evidence in the Nuremberg Trials- experts find that the amount of Jewish people living in Europe wasn’t correct, something difficult for the Nazi government with its meticulous statistics. After many years, researchers found that these numbers included African Jews, most of them Sepharadic, that were living under European countries’ control.
And this circumstance brought a transcendental thought: It makes us reflect on the suffering of North African Jews, the silent Holocaust victims, people obliged to live under extreme circumstances. This represents more than half million Jews living in Nazi allies or controlled countries -like Morocco and Algeria under French power- that faced the Nuremberg Laws, the Aryanization process or the educational restrictions. Many of them were sent to camps like BuqBuq, Giado or Sisi Azzaz.
The same year Reinhard Heydrich was murdered in Prague and more than 13,000 Jews were arrested -more than 4000 children- during the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris, African territories were the witness of one of the most transcendental events that changed the World War Second direction: the Second Battle of El-Alamein.
In 1941 the Nazi government created an expeditionary force called the Afrika Korps. This force ruled by Erwin Rommel was sent to Libya -under Italian control- to defend the Axis. Different battles were held in North Africa, but the Second Battle of El Alamein -that happened after the First Battle that prevented the advance of the Axis in Egypt- finished with the British victory and represents the end of the Western Desert Campaign. In other words, this was the beginning of the end: this renewed the Allies’ expectations and made possible the invasion of French North Africa. As Winston Churchill said in The Hinge of Fate, “before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”
We can say that the luck of the Allies in North Africa was essential to stop the Axis, and like many decisions we referred to previously, it changed the course of the war.
Today, after 80 years, we can say that there are multiple decisions that changed people’s destiny. Arcadia and Wannsee showed us how governmental decisions can send millions of people to death or recreate new strategies to save them. It took us the same amount of years understanding the role of Sepharadic Jews during the Holocaust. Many historians forgot the transcendence of Africa in World War II history.
This gives us a unique opportunity. We can see that it is in our hands making decisions that can change people’s life in a good -or bad- way. We are memory keepers and at the same time history makers and that’s why after 80 years the Shoah shows and teaches us why during hard, death and painful times -like a pandemic- we can build a better future.
Two months ago I had the opportunity to attend the World Jewish Congress Theodor Herzl Award Gala in New York City, where Dr. Albert Bourla was awarded due to his effort developing the COVID-19 vaccine. He is the son of Thessaloniki Holocaust survivors -and we must remember 98% were killed- and taught us that thank to a decision, a medical development, millions of lives in the world were saved.
We are sure that little big decisions can save millions of lives. And this is one of the things we learn from Holocaust history.