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What is the International Holocaust Remembrance Day?

January 27, 2024

January 27 is a global day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust. Germany has been observing it since 1996. In Israel, commemorations began much earlier, and on a different day.

Visitors looking at photos exhibhited on a wall in Auschwitz-Birkenau
Exhibition in Auschwitz-Birkenau: Hundreds of photos and yet only a very small part of the victims of Nazi persecution during the HolocaustImage: Andrea Grunau/DW

In November 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27 as an "International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust"(Resolution 60/7). It reaffirmed that "the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one-third of the Jewish people, along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism, and prejudice." At the time, Germany and other states had already introduced the annual commemoration. 

On January 27, 2006, the first worldwide International Holocaust Remembrance Day, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "There can be no reversing the unique tragedy of the Holocaust. It must be remembered, with shame and horror, for as long as human memory continues."

Why January 27?

On January 27, 1945, the forces of the Soviet Union, the Red Army, liberated the Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The soldiers encountered a few thousand survivors; they also found the ruins of the gas chambers and the corpses and ashes of people who had been murdered. About 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz, about 90% of them Jews.

Auschwitz was just one of many sites of persecution and mass murder established by Nazi Germany in Europe.

Virtual Holocaust remembrance

Preventing future genocides

By the time World War Two ended, the Nazis had killed more than 6 million Jews, hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma, disabled people, political opponents, homosexuals, forced laborers, people convicted of crimes, prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses and countless others who faced the Nazi terror.

As UN Secretary-General Annan stressed: "Remembering is also a safeguard for the future. The abyss reached in the Nazi death camps started with hatred, prejudice and antisemitism. Recalling these origins can remind us to ever be on the lookout for warning signs."

January 27 is a call for all UN member states to commemorate the persecuted and murdered men, women and children of the Holocaust.

Resolution 60/7 rejects all forms of Holocaust denial. It supports the development of outreach and remembrance programs and also aims to help prevent future acts of genocide. 

Recalling the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Resolution condemns "all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief" throughout the world.

Remembrance in Israel: Yom HaShoah

Instead of January 27, in Israel, the central day of remembrance of the Holocaust is Yom HaShoah, which generally takes place in April. For two minutes on that day, sirens sound across the country. Cars, buses and people all stop in place. People pause what they are doing to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust in silence.

The internationally common term Holocaust is derived from a Greek word meaning "burnt offering." Israel uses the term Shoah, or "catastrophe."

Israel's first officially organized "Day of Remembrance of the Shoah and Jewish Heroism" was held in 1951 and established by law in 1959. The exact day lies in the Jewish calendar month of Nisan, on the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in April 1943. Observance traditionally begins the evening before, in which six torches are lit in representation of the 6 million Jewish victims. More ceremonies take place the following day at Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial site.  

Also on Yom HaShoah, a memorial march is held traditionally between the Auschwitz main camp and the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp some 3 kilometers away, where most of the victims were killed. Thousands of Jewish youth participate in this annual "March of the Living." During the COVID-19 pandemic, the observance was held virtually.  

Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust Remembrance Day in Germany

Half a century passed following the end of World War Two and the victory of the Allies over Nazi Germany until President Roman Herzog declared January 27 as the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of National Socialism in 1996. On this day, flags fly at half-mast on all public buildings. Many schools use the occasion to discuss the topic. 

Since 1996, there has additionally been a memorial ceremony in Germany's federal parliament to mark the date. In the early years, German politicians generally held commemorative speeches. Since then, many Holocaust survivors or political leaders from other countries have spoken to the lawmakers in the land of the perpetrators. These speakers have come from Israel, the US, Poland, France, Spain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia and the UK. They shared their moving personal experiences and called for vigilance to prevent such a genocide in the future. "Never again! Never again!" called Israeli Parliamentary President Mickey Levy in 2022. 

In 2011, Zoni Weisz became the first member of the Sinti and Roma community to speak in the Bundestag. In 2017, two relatives of victims of the Nazi "euthanasia" program — the planned murder of people with severe diseases or disabilities — addressed lawmakers.

The memorial session in 2023 focused for the first time on people persecuted by the Nazis because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Bundestag ceremony in 2024 is dedicated to inter-generational remembrance. Eva Szepesi, who was liberated from Auschwitz as a child, will address the lawmakers first. She will be followed by journalist Marcel Reif, whose father survived the Holocaust, and who will speak on behalf of the younger generation.    

This article was originally written in German.

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Andrea Grunau
Andrea Grunau Reporter and author