As part of the annual events at the United Nations to mark the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, the General Assembly today heard a Holocaust survivor and a former World War II veteran recount the horrors they had witnessed some 70 years ago as they urged the world “not to forget that all human life is sacred.”
At a meeting that was opened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and which featured statements from, among others, Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel and Denis Antoine, Holocaust survivor Jona Laks, who travelled to New York from Tel Aviv, recalled that in Auschwitz she had been “just number A27725,” a tattoo that is still emblazoned on her arm.
“Seventy years since the liberation, I stand before you to bear witness of a world that once and a people disseminated because they were born Jewish. I stand before you to bear witness what befell my family, my twin sister and me,” Ms. Laks said.
The International Day is marked every year on 27 January, the date on which Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated in 1945. This year's observance, on the theme 'Liberty, Life and the Legacy of the Holocaust Survivors,' coincides with two milestone events: the 70th anniversary of the Second World War's end and the founding of the UN.
Ms. Laks said she was six years old when “Hitler invaded Poland,” and recalled how all Jews were demanded to abandon their homes and move into the ghettos. The confiscation of Jews’ property and being forced wear the yellow Star of David was a long and painful journey of dehumanization. “We went through horrors, starvation and illnesses,” she remembered. The concentration of a large number of people in a small overcrowded area caused epidemics and various diseases. All these things took their toll and make the children in the camps weak.
“One night, my father, who lived some distance from the children’s concentration camps, learned some of the less productive children were going to be deported to even worse camps. He managed to sneak in and bring my twin sister Miriam and me out. This is how my life was saved, because the next day, the 20,000 children were taken to be exterminated.”
Shortly thereafter, Ms. Laks was sent to Auschwitz with her sisters. “I remember very clearly the day we arrived in Auschwitz; we were lined up for selection. As we lined up, Hannah, our eldest sister who was afraid I would not pass this selection, gave me her wooden shoes to make me look taller, pinched my cheeks to make me look healthier, and pushed me to the back of the line.”
“But despite her efforts, I was marked for the crematorium while my twin sister was sent the other way. I was standing in line getting closer and closer to the crematorium. I could see smoke coming out and even smell the bodies,” Ms. Laks recalled.
But she was spared when one of the doctors noticed that she was a twin.
“I wish I could spare you all the gory details of what came next. There is nothing darker about the Holocaust than the role played by medical doctors,” she said. “It has been proven beyond any doubt that experiments performed on twins were not only cruel but scientifically useless. We were treated as inhuman creatures, lab animals and nothing more.”
After the war, in 1948, “an orphan and completely alone,” Ms. Laks made her way to then-British controlled Palestine. She said that when the State of Israel was established later that year, for the first time in her life she felt like she was a person and “no longer just a number.”
“Not only people died in Auschwitz, the idea of humanity perished as well. The message is not to forget and that human life is sacred,” she said.
Addressing the General Assembly via video-link, Avner Shalev, Chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, delivering today’s keynote address, asked why the Shoah refuses to become history and remains relevant to so many people. Genocides and other human atrocities occurred before the Holocaust but this event in history stands out. The Holocaust is so powerful, he said, because of the ease and speed with which the perpetrators’ ideology succeeded.
How could hundreds of years of human progress yield such massive atrocities? Modern society deludes itself that technological advances go hand-in-hand with moral progress. “This is not true. The Shoah was conceived by highly educated people,” Mr. Shalev said, emphasizing that if it happened before, it can happen again.
“How can we assure that values will still be essential to our lives as technology advances?” Through education, he answered. Yad Vashem teaches educators that in addition to being an immense atrocity to humanity, the Holocaust was also a dramatic struggle of the human spirit. “Our road today is plagued with cruel conflicts and we can and must educate the next generation of leaders to behave ethically. I call upon my fellow educators to strive and persevere in the battle of human morality.”
When the war ended, Mr. Shalev recalled, much of the world rejoiced for the Allied victory, but Jews who survived were left to mourn the death of their families and friends. They chose hope instead. And it is evident now that in the last 70 years they demonstrated their commitment to humanity by rebuilding their families and communities.
Taking to the podium next, Boris Feltman, a 95-year old World War II veteran, who recalled his time serving in Ukraine. He remembered the ghetto of thousands of Jews who were transferred from Romania; the young people forming resistance groups; and his own struggles witnessing the brutality around him.
He remembered how fascists caught 12 young Jewish men and killed them by throwing them 15 metres off a bridge. “They did not let anyone bury those men for two days.” Mr. Feltman recalled how fascists would shoot people “all the time without reason.”
Millions of people and six million Jews perished and “we, soldiers of the Soviet Union, with United States, England and Canada, on 9 May, 1945, felt like we rid the world of evil forever. We were happy like kids.”
“Generation after generation has the responsibility to tell the truth about the Holocaust,” the World War II veteran stressed, warning that today, new evils have emerged: anti-Semites, terrorists, and extremists again want to destroy society.
Also as part of today's ceremony, which was rescheduled from yesterday as UN Headquarters was closed due to inclement weather, Grammy-award winning violinist Miri Ben-Ari and Cantor Shimmy Miller, Congregation Ahavath Torah, recited the memorial prayers accompanied by keyboardist Daniel Gildar.
Today’s ceremony was followed by the opening of the exhibit “Shoah: How was it humanly possible,” curated by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, at 2:30 p.m. in the visitors lobby of UN Headquarters.