Speech at the Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration
Mansion House, Sunday, 27th January, 2019
A dhuine uaisle
Míle buiochas as ucht an cuireadh bheith in bhúr guideachta ar lá fíor tábhachtach i leith cúrsaí cuimhneacháin ní hamháin do muintir Iudaig ach do’n domhain uile.
I am honoured to have this opportunity to join you all here this evening to commemorate National Holocaust Memorial Day. May I thank the Holocaust Education Trust for their invitation and Lord Mayor of Dublin, who is our host.
May I commence by paying tribute to Holocaust survivors Suzi Diamond, Tomi Reichental and Walter Sekules who have joined us here today, Jadzia Kaminska who is representing her father Jan Kaminski, and the second and third generation survivors who are also here today. You are all so critical in helping us to bear witness to a dark and tragic chapter of the past.
Seventy-four years ago today, the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front opened the gates of Auschwitz and entered the Auschwitz camp complex. There they discovered approximately 7,000 surviving prisoners who had been left behind in Auschwitz by fleeing Nazis, that number including 180 children.
They found the many possessions – the shoes, the children’s socks, a pocket watch, a thimble, letters, broken toys and other personal belongings, that spoke so poignantly, and so much louder than any words could possibly do, of the intimacies of humanity of those who were herded like animals into the concentration camps and gas chambers that would become the site of such grotesque crimes.
More than one million people, mostly Jews but also communists, homosexuals, Romani people and trade unionists, were systematically murdered in Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. The sense of horror and revulsion felt by those who liberated Auschwitz, who saw what one described as “the emaciated, tortured and impoverished people …. The eyes which betrayed their ordeal”, has echoed down the years and generations that now separate us from the evil that was the Holocaust.
The Jewish American writer and concentration camp survivor Eli Wiesel has asked ‘how do we remember. How do we mourn the six million people who died’?
Today, the visible signs of the war have largely disappeared from the rebuilt towns and streets of Europe. Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain to tell their stories. As time continues to pass, and we move further away from that dark and bleak moment in history, it becomes more and more imperative that we understand the importance of remembering that dark chapter, and that we do not commit the grievous error of consigning the Holocaust and the lessons learnt from it to a past that is no longer relevant in a modern world.
I first spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration in Dublin in January 2012. In the intervening seven years there have been many worrying developments in Europe and across the world. Following World War ll, nations around the globe resolved to create political and economic structures and build international institutions that would ensure the horrors wrought by two world wars would never re-occur.
Today, however, we are witnessing a growing rise of various forms of a corrupted and distorted nationalism on virtually every continent. Countries across Europe have seen a rise in electoral support for political parties declaiming an extreme, exclusionary message. Refugees, immigrant communities and other minority groups are increasingly viewed as a threat to the rights of the majority and many achievements by those who have fought tirelessly for human rights are under threat by a new generation of extremists who view those universal rights as a threat to their own individual rights. The poison of anti-semitism is not absent from their rhetoric.
Those forms of strident nationalism and populism, not to be confused with the emancipatory power of popular movements of the past that sought universal provision, continue to spread across Europe and other parts of the world. They are a salutary reminder of just how fragile democracy is, how easily it can be undermined when leaders and citizens turn away from democratic rule and discourse, deny opposing views all legitimacy, restrict civil liberties and attempt to limit freedom of expression including freedom of the press.
These new tendencies took a strong hold during the recession of recent years when many felt the impact of austerity, and it became all too easy, for many, to scapegoat migrants and refugees and to present them as jeopardising the job prospects of ‘native citizens’, having the potential to destabilise or threaten efforts towards economic recovery, all of these being assumptions and allegations rejected by empirical study. However, despite the decline of unemployment and a gradual economic recovery, a corrupted form of populism has not abated, and anti-semitism has not been eliminated from the extreme rhetoric of those seeking to scapegoat the vulnerable, inflame the confused and angry.
Today, as we take a long gaze back at the huge stain on human history that was the Holocaust, it is possible for scholars to identify the separate stages that culminated in the mass murder of six million Jewish people.
We can see how racism and resentment of those perceived as ‘Other’ can lead to discrimination; how discrimination can lead to isolation and persecution; how isolation and persecution can lead to the viewing of one group of fellow citizens as being less than human and how that loss of any sense of shared humanity can lead to brutality, barbarity and a most inhuman lack of mercy, informed by a learned culture of humiliation of the Other and, in the case of the Holocaust, their elimination.
We know, now that it is much easier through global communications to anticipate and to prevent genocide if we intervene in those earlier stages of discrimination and persecution.
We also know the huge depths of depravity and evil that can emerge from hatred, prejudice and intolerance; the terrible inhumanity that can surface and the genocide that can be unleashed when a dangerous ideology is allowed to flourish, when the pursuit of that ideology including the mass murder of those perceived to stand it its way, becomes official state policy.
How are we to remember? As antisemitism and racism once again begin to rise across Europe we must remember the Holocaust collectively and work together to ensure that hatred and inhumanity is not allowed to once again spread its dark shadow across Europe and the world.
We must ensure as new generations emerge, that their world becomes further and further removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, tell them that they too can learn from the actions of those who allowed it to happen, who participated in it, who enabled it by looking the other way. To quote Hannah Arendt, “Evil thrives on apathy and cannot survive without it.” We must ensure that they appreciate the shelter that a shared commitment to international law, its norms, practices and decisions serve as a protection for us all.
We must preserve sites such as Auschwitz, visible reminders of the cold, willful annihilation of innocent people that would be the culmination of hatred, racism and intolerance that was allowed to flourish unhindered, and sites from which future generations can learn so much.
We must also ensure that our schools and universities enable our young people to become citizens who are reflective, unafraid to query the status quo, to reject the easy option of ‘going with the flow’, to ask the difficult questions that will change the tenor of a discussion while also valuing the capacity to listen to alternative opinions with the necessary courtesies of democratic discourse.
So, on this Holocaust Memorial Day and at a time when democracy is once again being challenged by populist leaders, let us commit to remembering the atrocities of the Holocaust and the intolerance, prejudice and denial of the dignity and rights of the ‘other’ which had led to it.
Let us commit to ensuring that all those who lost their lives in Auschwitz, in Bergen Belsen, in Dachau and in all the other concentration camps where minority groups were confined, will not be forgotten now or into the future. As we remember, let us also ensure that we do not become passive observers of discrimination or inequality in our society but remain vigilant to the emergence of racism and hate speech, continue to share a common obligation to value and uphold human dignity, freedom, equality and democracy.
In conclusion may I thank all those who have been involved in the organisation of this important event, and all those who have travelled from across Ireland and the world to participate. Your attendance here is greatly important as we resolve to work, together, to ensure that we do not make the inexcusable mistake of forgetting the merciless and deliberate annihilation of innocent people which was the Holocaust.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.