ST. PETERSBURG — Recent events overseas have those who study the Holocaust particularly on edge.
A conference this week at the downtown Hilton brought together those who work in human rights groups and Holocaust museums to discuss emerging anti-Semitic sentiments in Eastern Europe, in particular, and as far as Greece, and how to stop potential harm.
The Association of Holocaust Organizations is a national group that is convening this year in St. Petersburg, home to the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Although panel discussions among experts were largely academic in the intricacies of the subject, the overarching message was clear.
“You have to fight against those conditions which bring genocide about,” association President William Shulman said. “It’s an ongoing struggle and unfortunately we haven’t been very successful.”
Conference panelists called for more public education efforts, and said they were concerned that in some places, specifically Eastern Europe, memory of the execution of millions of Jews could fade amid nationalistic, anti-Jewish attitudes.
“The Holocaust was a central event in modern history, not just European or Jewish history, because it helped shape the world that we live in today,” said Mark Weitzman, director of government affairs at the Simon Weisenthal Center, a human rights organization that confronts anti-Semitism. “Aspects of human rights, of international law, of war criminals, of genocide, all grew out of that area.”
Weitzman spoke Monday as part of a panel discussing Holocaust education in Europe.
“In Hungary and in Greece, for example, we’re seeing political parties that have embraced aspects of anti-Semitism, of Holocaust denial, really becoming mainstream,” he said. “We’re seeing that these parties, which should have been on the fringe or ignored, have surged in (elections) as part of an anti-EU sentiment as a result of economic and social unrest.”
Conference organizers said they chose St. Petersburg for this year’s event in large part because of the national reputation of the Florida Holocaust Museum.
“It’s important to bring scholarship here, it’s important for collaboration between the organizations,” said Susan Myers, vice president of the association.
Elizabeth Gelman, executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum, said the conference here generated a record number of attendees. She said that may be ascribed to the caliber of panelists the conference brought in, but also St. Petersburg’s appeal for visitors.
“It’s an honor for the museum to host this conference of such incredible leaders in the field that have come here,” Gelman said.