The president of the World Jewish Congress has accused leaders of contributing to the “drip, drip method” of spreading antisemitism, comparing it to the defamation campaigns that culminated in the Holocaust.
Ahead of the 75th anniversary on Mondayof the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ronald Lauder said that governments spent too much time talking about the dangers of antisemitism and not enough time tackling it.
“The writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. And what I’ve seen more and more is governments talking about it, but there seems to be a lack of action,” said Lauder, adding that this would be the theme of his address at the commemoration at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“What we’re seeing is the same drip, drip method used in the 1930s and 40s to whip up hatred. Eventually, with this growth of antisemitism, there will be another maybe not Hitler but another leader like him, and we must do something now to stop that.”
About 200 Holocaust survivors and their families are to attend Monday’s commemoration ceremony, along with world leaders, at the Auschwitz memorial site in southern Poland. Britain will be represented by Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
Lauder warned that there might not be another big anniversary event “because we’re losing so many survivors”. In their final days, survivors were, at the very least, owed reassurance that their children and grandchildren could live in safety, he said.
“We owe them a major debt. They should be filled with hate and wanting to take revenge, but they rebuilt their lives. They and their children and grandchildren should not have to live through what they’ve had to live through. We are letting them down, because they’re seeing again the ugly head of antisemitism.”
Lauder pointed to a 10-point plan issued by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main body representing the Jewish community in the UK – which is affiliated to the WJC – to end the Labour party’s “antisemitism crisis”. He said: “The most important point is number 10 – show leadership and take responsibility. I don’t know many places in the world where people are showing this leadership on the issue of antisemitism right now, and that is the main problem.”
Last month, Lauder accompanied Angela Merkel on her first visit to Auschwitz since becoming German chancellor 15 years ago. “I won’t discuss what we talked about, but I think one of the reasons [for her visit] is what is happening in Germany now,” he said, referring to the rise in antisemitic attacks in recent years.
After a far-right attack on a synagogue in Halle in October, in which two people died, Lauder visited the city. “I asked myself: who is taking responsibility? Is it the chancellor? I don’t see who is doing that in Germany, or the UK,” Lauder said.
“Germany has done a lousy job dealing with its past because they have not taught about Auschwitz and what really happened there.”
Lauder, the son of the late Estée Lauder, founder of the eponymous cosmetic empire, has been president of the WJC since 2007. He was sent by Ronald Reagan to Austria as US ambassador but resigned in 1987 after 18 months in protest at the election of Kurt Waldheim as Austrian president, despite the revelation that he had been a Nazi intelligence officer.
That episode made Lauder more aware of his Jewish heritage and gave him the impetus to visit Auschwitz for the first time.
“I always thank Kurt Waldheim for making me a Jew,” he said. “I came [to Vienna] as an assimilated Jew, and when I left I was a Jew who was much more aware.”
Having witnessed the disintegration of the Auschwitz memorial site, Lauder, 765, established conservation laboratories to preserve the evidence of the Nazi murder of 1.1 million Jews carried out there. “When I first arrived there, the hair was disintegrating, the leather suitcases and shoes were falling apart. I said at this rate there’ll soon be nothing left, so we raised $40m and set up the laboratories.”
Experts from the Egyptian wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art helped establish the preservation methods, which continue to keep a team of conservators busy in a full-time operation. “When you go there you see people working on everything from hair to shoes to paintwork, to bricks, wood and barbed wire that’s falling apart … It’s probably the only place of all the Nazi concentration and extermination camps where you still have a sense of what it was like.