Top United Nations officials led a visit by 150 eminent personalities and representatives of 40 Governments today to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, to combat denial of the Holocaust of millions of Jews and others during the Second World War.
“As the poet and philosopher George Santayana said, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’,” said UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Irina Bokova, who led the visit with Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris, and the Aladdin Project, which seeks to counter all forms of denial and promote a rapprochement of cultures, particularly between Jews and Muslims, based on mutual respect.
“The genocide of the Jewish people was a unique and paradigmatic event that helps us to understand other historical genocides and other atrocities worldwide that originate in racism and hatred. If we understand them, we can avert them in the future,” she added.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro stood with Ms. Bokova in homage before the wreath-bedecked memorial at the camp where over one million people, mostly Jews, perished until it was liberated on 27 January 1945, a date now commemorated by the UN as the International Day in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. She, too, stressed the vital need to counter Holocaust denial.
“We must always remember the millions of innocent Jews and countless members of other minorities who were systematically murdered at Auschwitz and the other death camps. We must counter anyone, anywhere, who seeks to deny the Holocaust or diminish its significance,” she told a news conference yesterday in Paris ahead of the visit. “Every day of the year, the United Nations strives to heed the lessons of that horror.”
In remarks at the camp today, she highlighted the crucial importance of educating the world on the atrocities of what happened to prevent a repetition. “That is why the United Nations General Assembly called for an outreach programme to develop educational materials about the Holocaust,” she said. “To help people understand what happened here and across the vast sea of extermination camps – so that it may never, ever happen again.”
Among those in the delegation were President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder; former Croatian President Stepjan Mesic; former Mauritanian President Mohamed Vall; and Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Representatives of the heads of State of Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey also participated as did the mayors of 12 cities in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Overall, some six million Jews are estimated to have been killed in the Holocaust along with countless Roma, Slavs, homosexuals, disabled people, Jehovah’s witnesses, Communists and political dissidents.
“The purpose of the visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is to underline the horrific consequences of Nazi and Fascist ideology on the Jewish people and countless members of other minorities, and to inspire political, religious and intellectual leaders around the world to combat the denial of the Holocaust and all forms of intolerance and dehumanization,” UNESCO said in a news release.
The Paris-based agency has strengthened its education programme on Holocaust remembrance and human rights thanks to new funds received from Israel. The programme develops school curricula and provides training for teachers about the Holocaust and human rights, with the goal of promoting a culture of peace.
This year, UNESCO organized two exhibitions at its Paris headquarters, ‘The Shoah in Europe’ giving an overview of the Holocaust from the rise of Nazism to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals in 1946, and one presenting the original manuscript of the diary kept by Sorbonne student Helen Berr from April 1942 to February 1944. Helen and her family were deported to Auschwitz in March 1944.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979.