The United Nations today marked the annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust with an urgent appeal that the remembrance of the millions of Jews and others murdered by the Nazis serve to prevent new massacres, a rebuff for those who deny that the tragedy ever occurred, and moving testimony from survivors.
“The Holocaust was a unique and undeniable tragedy,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a video message played to a special memorial ceremony in the General Assembly Hall on the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews, 500,000 Roma and Sinti and other minorities, disabled and homosexuals were killed.
“Decades later, the systematic murder of millions of Jews and others retains its power to shock. The ability of the Nazis to command a following, despite their utter depravity, still strikes fear. And above all, the pain remains: for aging survivors, and for all of us as a human family that witnessed a descent into barbarism.
He emphasized the importance of remembrance in tribute to those who perished and in global efforts to stem the tide of human cruelty. “It keeps us vigilant for new outbreaks of anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance. And it is an essential response to those misguided individuals who claim that the Holocaust never happened, or has been exaggerated,” Mr. Ban declared.
He said the presence at today’s ceremony of disabled persons and the Roma and Sinti community showed that, even now, the act of bearing witness can offer new perspectives, while the participation of young people highlighted the value of going beyond remembrance to ensure that new generations know this history.
Mr. Ban noted that while the General Assembly was marking the event in New York he himself was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at an African Union (AU) summit where one of the main items is ending the violence in Sudan’s wart-torn Darfur, where over 200,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced by the conflict between the Sudanese Government, allied militias and rebels.
General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Al Khalifa called for paying tribute to all victims – the needless deaths of millions of Jews and the suffering endured by the many minority groups that were also victims, some of whom were present in the Hall.
“Today’s commemoration is an important reminder of the universal lessons of the Holocaust, a unique evil which cannot simply be consigned to the past and forgotten. The Holocaust was a historical event, which cannot be denied. Its consequences still reverberate in the present.” she told the ceremony.
“It is a tragedy that the international community has not been able to stop new horrors in the years since the Holocaust. This makes it all the more important that we remember the lessons of the past so that we do not make the same mistakes in the future. We must remain vigilant. The forces of hatred, bigotry and racism are still at work in the world.”
Thomas Schindlmayr, who works on disability issues for the UN but was speaking in his personal capacity, discussed the persecution of people with disabilities under Nazi Germany. “They were stripped of any legal protection and denied control over their own lives and bodies,” he said, recalling the forced sterilization of persons with disabilities and other abuses. While much had been learned since then, the notion that persons with disabilities are somehow inferior is still prevalent, he warned.
The keynote speaker, Simone Veil, a member of the Constitutional Council of France and President of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, said that by creating this annual observance, the UN had remained faithful to its founding principles.
“For those of us who were deported, not a day goes by that we do not think of the Shoah,” said Ms. Veil, who was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and was at Bergen-Belsen when that camp was liberated by the British Army. “What obsesses us the most is the memory of those from whom we were brutally separated when we arrived at the camps, and who we later learned were sent straight to the gas chambers,” she added, recalling how her own father and brother were taken away, never to be seen again.
“We thought we had no more tears but we still wept, and I still weep today when I think of” those who were marched directly to the gas chambers, she said. “And I think of it every day, many times.”
She said that while those who survived hoped and pledged “Never again,” their warnings were in vain. “After the massacres in Cambodia, it is Africa that is paying the highest price in genocidal terms,” she said, referring in particular to the events in Darfur, Sudan, and calling for UN action in response.
Under Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor, who moderated the event, said it had two key purposes: “Of course, we meet to mourn that part of our human family that is missing – to remember the individuals and tell each other their stories. But we also meet to unearth the lessons we can draw from their lives and their fates.”
He said the first among those lessons “is that, just as human beings have an almost infinite power to destroy, they also possess an enormous capacity to learn, to grow and to create.”
At a news conference at UN Headquarters in New York, representatives of Roma and Sinti, who with 12 million members make up Europe’s largest minority, said they are subject to discrimination, social disadvantage and frequently also to open violence.
“Especially in the countries of Eastern Europe, there are millions of members of our minority who live in ghetto-like housing, often cut off from any infrastructure,” Romani Rose Chairman of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma said. “The infant mortality is extremely high, the degrading conditions that prevail there call the former apartheid system in South Africa to mind.
“Excluded from education, marginalized in the labour market, people are deprived of any opportunity of participating in the development of society and of leading a self-determined life. Quite frequently Roma and Sinti are victims of pogroms, racially motivated murder and other of acts of violence. Often such attacks emanate from the State security forces themselves. Only rarely can the perpetrators expect consistent prosecution.”
Ceremonies were held in other UN outposts around the world. “The sheer dimensions of the organized murder of Jews and others, the very scale of the systematic attempt at destroying an entire people, make the Holocaust a unique calamity that cannot – and should not – be forgotten, let alone denied,” the Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva told a ceremony at the Palais des Nations.
“Sadly, other genocides and atrocities have followed the Holocaust, and the world has been unable, or unwilling, to prevent or stop them,” said Sergei Ordzhonikidze. “If we are to spare future generations from similar tragedies, we must carry forward the lessons of the Holocaust. We must not allow any of lessons of the Holocaust and of the Second World War to be distorted.”
On Friday the General Assembly condemned without reservation any denial of the Holocaust, with only Iran publicly disassociating itself from the consensus resolution.