"Meetings between students and Holocaust survivors remain the best way of fighting Holocaust denial"

Article, 07.03.2017

This year, Switzerland is assuming the chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Its new chair, FDFA secretary general Benno Bättig, discusses his role, Switzerland's priorities and the importance of raising youth awareness.

Swiss youngsters looking at portraits of Holocaust victims © CICAD

Why was it important for Switzerland to take on the chairmanship of the IHRA?

FDFA secretary general Benno Bättig
Benno Bättig © FDFA

From a policy perspective, I can say it was important for the sake of continuity and due to a sense of responsibility.

Switzerland joined the IHRA, as its 18th member country, back in 2004. Since then, the IHRA has almost doubled in size (it now has 31 member countries and 11 observer countries) and Switzerland has pursued its commitment to the teaching of the Holocaust, the remembrance of its victims and empirical research into the role the country played in that period. The country report we submitted to the IHRA last year is just one example of that. The chairmanship also gives us the opportunity to highlight the steadfastness of this commitment and to encourage local initiatives in this regard. In 2015, the Federal Council unanimously agreed to Switzerland putting itself forward as a candidate for the chairmanship of the IHRA.

As a citizen and a father, I should add that one of the reasons was to remind younger generations that the Holocaust concerns us all.  We must remain conscious of what can happen if we subject others to systematic discrimination, humiliation and exclusion.

As the chair of this organisation, what are you personally planning to focus on this year? Is there one priority you hold particularly dear?

A number of local projects are associated with the chairmanship. I am delighted with the variety of these projects and the enthusiasm I see in the people working on them. These projects revolve around three themes: education, young people and social media.

I have a particular interest in youth affairs and therefore also in educational activities to raise awareness. In 2015, I had the privilege of opening the IHRA's first international conference in Switzerland. Everyone agreed that, largely thanks to the dedication of the University of Teacher Education Lucerne, this was a resounding success. During the chairmanship, two other Universities of teacher education will be involved in projects, including the international study days in Lausanne on practices and experiences in education relating to the Holocaust.

In a nutshell, the thread through all these projects is their focus on young people and the desire to find approaches and strategies to raise their awareness of these unprecedented historical events. My children now live in a world in which they are flooded with information, tending to blur the distinction between real life and virtual reality. We have a duty to provide the younger generation and citizens of tomorrow with tools to distinguish between what is essential and what is secondary, and so between the real and virtual worlds.

How are you going to appeal to young people?

I would like to give a concrete example of what I mean by essential and real, namely the meetings with survivors. For at least 20 years now, school classes have had the privilege of speaking with Holocaust survivors living in Switzerland. Such meetings remain forever etched in pupils' memories and are the best way of fighting Holocaust denial. These meetings are therefore absolutely vital, and I hold them particularly close to my heart. That's why over the past 10 years the FDFA has supported the publication of a dozen unpublished survivors' memoirs. French-speaking classes have just translated them into French, with this providing an opportunity for the pupils to meet the authors.

How does Switzerland plan to cooperate with the relevant organisations and stakeholders in Switzerland?

Such cooperation is nothing new, dating back to long before this chairmanship and has provided us with a sound basis for planning our year in this role.

When, at the FDFA's instigation and with the support of the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education, Switzerland proposed joining the IHRA, a group was launched bringing together relevant civil society players and organisations. This group helped to support and encourage the work of the Swiss delegation to the IHRA and also establishing a network of these stakeholders and communicating on the ground across Switzerland about the IHRA's activities.

The group, which initially had some 20 members, was expanded further in anticipation of the IHRA chairmanship. Various projects have been developed in this context, and we look forward to presenting some of these at the plenaries in Geneva and Bern.