Czech Holocaust survivor warns against rising tide of antisemitism and racism across Europe

Doris Grozdanovicova, 92, one of few living survivors of SS concentration camp in Terezin, returned this week to unveil memorial 

Kim Sengupta
Terezin, Czech Republic
Monday 11 June 2018 09:28 BST
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The surge of populism across the continent has seen right-wing nationalist parties win political power in a number of countries, such as Hungary, Austria and Slovenia
The surge of populism across the continent has seen right-wing nationalist parties win political power in a number of countries, such as Hungary, Austria and Slovenia

In 1942, at the age of 16, Doris Grozdanovicova was arrested with her family and sent off to the SS concentration camp at the Czech town of Terezin.

Tens of thousands were sent there to die there during the Nazi occupation, including her mother. Another 90,000, among them her father, were sent on to be murdered at Auschwitz and Treblinka in Poland.

Ms Grozdanovicova, one of the very few survivors of the camp still alive, travelled to Terezin this week to unveil a memorial to those who lost their lives.

She had just returned from a visit to Germany where she had been speaking to school pupils about the terrible damage caused by antisemitism, racism and intolerance, and stressing the need to learn lessons from the past.

It is sad to say, but we need to remember now what happened more than ever. It is very depressing to see what is happening in Europe, the extremism and the effect it’s having

Doris Grozdanovicova, 92-year-old Holocaust survivor

“It is sad to say, but we need to remember now what happened more than ever. It is very depressing to see what is happening in Europe, the extremism and the effect it’s having,” she said.

“So I try and do my bit while I am still alive, go and talk to people, at colleges and schools about what happened. The harm that was done.”

Terezin was used as a transit camp by the Nazis to send Jewish people first from Germany and Austria, and then from the Netherlands and Denmark after those countries were occupied.

Among the 150,000 who passed through, there were 15,000 children. Almost none ofvjio them returned home.

The Holocaust memorial in Terezin, Czech Republic (Ondrej Besperat)

“It was a place not just for Czechs, of course, but people from other places, sent from one part of Europe to die in another part,” said the 92-year-old.

“So many countries in Europe suffered because of this hatred, I am sorry to see this hatred again in Europe in my lifetime.”

The rise of populism across the continent has seen right-wing nationalist parties win political power in a number of states, the latest Slovenia where the anti-immigration Slovenian Democratic Party is due to form a coalition government.

The party’s leader, Janez Jansa, is an ally of Hungary’s hard-line prime minister, Viktor Orban, whose electoral success has been one of the most marked in the surge of nationalist victories in Poland, Austria and Italy.

The common denominator in the policies of these parties in a fervent anti-migrant rhetoric, even when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers, and a strident opposition to accepting them under the European Union’s quota system.

There has also been an accompanying surge of antisemitism, not just in those countries but elsewhere, with physical attacks, the desecration of cemeteries and Nazi slogans heard in marches.

In Warsaw, the Senate in February passed a bill which would make illegal to accuse the Polish people of complicity in Nazi-era war crimes, a move which has led to international condemnation and accusations of attempting to airbrush history and pandering to right-wing, antisemitic votes.

Last November, on Poland’s Independence Day, members of far-right groups from across Europe took part in a march in Warsaw with chants of “Sieg Heil”, “Clean blood”, “Jews out of Poland” as well as “White Europe” and “Refugees out”.

Around 90 per cent of the Jewish population were exterminated during the War, leaving a community now of just under 10,000.

Police responded by arresting 45 anti-racist demonstrators, while the country’s foreign ministry declared the day had been “a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views, but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland.”

None of the hard-right marchers were detained.

When a reporter asked Poland’s interior minister what he thought of the far-right banners, the minister responded: “That’s your opinion because you behave like an activist.”

At the unveiling of the Terezin memorial in early June, Dr Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, said: “The lessons of the Holocaust have been forgotten, facing the sands of time, and a new open and mainstream antisemitism is spreading.

“It has reached an unprecedented and alarming scale, Jewish communities across Europe require massive protection and security.”

The targeting of minority communities, he wanted to point out, will only spread unless action is taken.

“This has become a sign of a profound social sickness and is a danger not only to Jews, but to countries and citizens across the globe. Hatred and intolerance are everyone’s problem and we expect layers of civil society to be at the forefront of this battle.”

Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, wanted to stress: “It is worth remembering that we the Jews have always been the first in Europe to suffer from the haters, but we were never the last.

“Those who want to target and persecute communities don’t just stop with one set of minorities.”

There has been a rise in antisemitic acts in the Czech Republic – attacks on properties, a rise of threats on the internet, and abusive remarks by a few politicians – but the level remains relatively low compared to some other countries in the continent.

“There was more antisemitism in this country in the past, and there are some worrying aspects like attacks on George Soros, but we are lucky in relation to other places that there have been no terrorist attacks against us for example and the main parties have been very supportive,” he said, referring to the Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire who is a figure of hate for the far-right.

“But we are part of the same interconnected continent, and we can see very worrying things developing across Europe.”

The far-right in the Czech Republic did surprisingly well at the last election, with around 11 per cent of the votes, at the expense of traditional parties.

The leader of the successful anti-immigrant and anti-EU Freedom and Democratic Party (SPD) had, among other things, urged people to walk pigs around mosques and stop eating kebabs to show their dislike of Islam.

“We want to stop any Islamisation of the Czech Republic; we push for zero tolerance of migration ... The European Union can’t be reformed, it only dictates to us. We refuse a multicultural European superstate,” said the leader.

The leader, Tomio Okamura, is of Japanese and Czech parentage and spent part of his childhood in Japan.

And he was not always an anti-immigrant hardliner. He had appeared on the jury at beauty pageant Miss Expat with migrant contestants, and had shared photographs on social media of his Czech girlfriend wearing body-concealing clothes to enter a mosque in London, describing the way she was welcomed as a “fine experience”.

Grozdanovicova, centre, 92-year-old Holocaust survivor at the opening of the Terezin memorial (Ondrej Besperat)

Mr Okamura shifted dramatically to the right in 2015, launching the SPD to take advantage, it has been claimed, of this trend towards populism.

The political journey of 29-year-old Lukas took place roughly around the same time.

The electrician, of Czech and German background, who does not want his surname published, was working in Dresden three years ago when hundreds of thousands of refugees were trekking into Europe, many to escape the Syrian war, with a large number heading into Germany.

“My friends and I were just curious as first, but we began to see more and more of these people coming into the country, there seemed to be no end to this.

“So myself and a few others began to take an interest; we went to discussion groups and then protest marches against this. We thought Europe was being changed in front of our eyes,” said Lukas.

The anti-immigrant Pegida movement had taken to the streets in Dresden, and Lukas was soon marching with them.

Different people had some different views, but the general fear was that we as European Christians were being taken over

Lukas, former far-right sympathiser 

As his interest in far-right politics grew, he began to attend meetings of other nationalist organisations like Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the National Democratic Party (NPD), as well as another group he was not prepared to identify.

All had pan-European and, to a lesser extent, trans-Atlantic connections, he pointed out.

“Different people had some different views, but the general fear was that we as European Christians were being taken over. There was a lot of racism and the more you went into these groups, the more extreme it became,” Lukas, who is now living near Prague, reflected.

“The hatred was general, against foreigners, against Muslims, and for those who were more into that kind of politics, against Jews.

“You heard all the stuff about how the Jews controlled the banks, the newspapers and television, owned politicians. And some people believed all that about the foreigners and the Jews.”

Lukas cut his ties with his far-right companions after becoming increasingly concerned about a spate of attacks against refugee centres, immigrant hostels, and Jewish cemeteries, and saw that the inflammatory rhetoric was becoming the norm.

“There was violence, fighting with the police, it was getting too much. I began to look around me and realised I didn’t belong with these people.”

Lukas returned to the Czech Republic when a job offer came early this year. He is no longer involved with any organised groups, but remains interested in politics.

Considering the rise of the SPD, he commented: “This country has very few foreigners; you can look around and see that. But even here, politicians can play on fear and do well.

“So if it is like this here, you can see why the right wing are doing well elsewhere in Europe where there are more different religions and races. This is not a problem which is going to go away; people need to realise that and confront it.”

But Ms Grozdanovicova said she is determined to continue doing her share of confronting hatred and extremism.

“We must keep telling people not to believe lies and be divided. My son lives in London, he is a lawyer, married to an Indian girl, so I have mixed Czech and Indian grandchildren,” she said with a smile, standing in front of Terezin concentration camp.

“They are doing fine and I am very happy I have such a family. I remain an optimist in life.”

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