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President attends the Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration 2020

Mansion House, 6pm, Sunday 26th January 2020

Lord Mayor,
A dhaoine uaisle,
Tá an-áthas orm a bheith anseo inniu.


I welcome this opportunity to be here with you today to mark National Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls tomorrow, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. May I thank the Holocaust Education Trust for its invitation, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin for hosting this important event.

We are honoured to have Holocaust survivors Tomi Reichenthal and Suzi Diamond with us today, with them Kinga Paszko, whose family received the honour of Righteous Among the Nations for saving the lives of a Jewish family during the Holocaust.

Their presence and words are so important in helping us to bear witness to the level to which human actions sank. On every occasion we hear them. Your personal recollections remind us of the millions of individual stories which make up the narrative of the Shoah; the families torn from each other, the deaths suffered and witnessed, the lost potential, and the brutal assault on culture and identity.

We recall too of course the courage, generosity of spirit, tenacity and great will to survive which are also a part of the Holocaust narrative.

Three-quarters of a century ago, the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front arrived at Auschwitz, and when they entered the concentration camp complex, it remains hard to imagine fully the horrors they uncovered – the mass graves and the remains of the 1.1 million people systematically murdered, their possessions and personal belongings that spoke so poignantly and more powerfully than any words could possibly do, of the simplest and most basic intimacies of humanity of those who were herded into the concentration camps and gas chambers, the site of such appalling crimes. Those entering to liberate the camps discovered approximately 7,000 surviving prisoners, of which 180 were children, who had been left behind in Auschwitz by the fleeing Nazis.

The vast majority of those murdered in Auschwitz were Jewish women, men and children. Others put to death in this horrible, planned way included non-Jewish Poles, members of the Roma Community, Soviet Prisoners of war, homosexuals, the disabled, and political and religious opponents. The sense of horror and revulsion felt by those who liberated Auschwitz has reverberated through the decades so hauntingly. For let us not forget that so little time separates us from the evil that was the Holocaust. This is not an event from the distant past.

We have to also recognise that these actions were preceded by the hate of an anti-Semitism, and the excluding stereotypes of minorities, something we must be vigilant to ensure is recognised and unequivocally opposed now and in the future.

It is so important that we remember, for by doing so we respectfully and solemnly commemorate those who died or suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and we vow to do all we can to ensure that such a horror never occurs again.

To quote French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “to be forgotten is to die twice”. As humanitarians and reflexive, responsible human beings, we have a duty to preserve the memory of the many people whose lives were taken in such an appalling way.

It is so important that our collective memory of events like the Holocaust is shared, passed on, that it remains prominent in our collective consciousness.

Memory is haunted, not just by ghostly others, but by the horrors that have been done, experienced or witnessed. No wonder, then, that for Jorge Luis Borges, to remember is a “ghostly verb”. Memory, indeed, constitutes one of the greatest sources of interrogation bequeathed to us by the 20th century, with its cortege of pandemics, mass crimes and grotesque experimentations with totalitarianism. The ethical practice of remembering is a cornerstone in our attempts to live morally and inclusively.

Some 75 years on, the visible signs of World War II have largely been erased from the rebuilt cities and towns of Europe, and fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain to tell their stories. As time continues to pass, and as we move further away chronologically from that darkest period of history, it becomes thus even more important that we understand the obligation that it is of remembering what led to that barbaric chapter, its consequences, and learn from it. It would be a grievous error to consign the Holocaust or the lessons that should be learnt from it to a past that was assumed to be no longer relevant in our modern world.

In the eight years since I first spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration in Dublin, it is deeply worrying to observe an emerging trend of the rise of extremist language and politics across the streets of Europe, one that seeks to exploit what is often a loss of trust, but much more frequently informs a populism that invokes fear, exclusion and rejection of the ‘Other’.

The commitment to multilateralism that resulted from the founding moments of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II is no longer a given. Several states, including some of the most powerful actors globally, are repudiating this multilateral order, pursuing narrow, neo-nationalist agendas.

This decision is as regrettable as it is myopic, displaying a dangerous ignorance of history. Furthermore, it is eroding the respect of international standards and laws including the Geneva Conventions, the 75th anniversary of which was marked by an international conference at which I spoke last September.

Refugees, immigrant communities and other minority groups are increasingly described as a threat to the rights of the majority. The many achievements by those who have fought tirelessly for human rights are in peril from new cohorts of extremists who view hard-won universal rights as somehow a threat to their own individual rights.

We are witnessing the growing rise of various forms of a corrupted, distorted version of an exclusionary and often bogus, indeed mythical, type of nationalism on virtually every continent. The toxicity of anti-Semitism is not absent from this rhetoric, and it should be identified and condemned for what it is – an invitation to hatred and hate speech.

We in Ireland had been fortunate that such extremism has not gained significant support at a time when many countries in Europe and elsewhere have seen the rise of a Far Right. Often galvanised by the impact of austerity policy, such movements manipulated fears and insecurities, wielding these as tools of xenophobia, seeking to excise the instincts of solidarity across the peoples of Europe, scapegoating migrants and refugees, and presenting them as a threat to the job prospects of so-called ‘native citizens’, all of these being allegations rejected by empirical research.

However, despite the gradual economic recovery, an ugly anti-migrant sentiment is attempting to rear its head in Ireland, a corrupted form of populism has not abated across Europe, and anti-Semitism has not been eliminated from the extreme rhetoric of those seeking to scapegoat the vulnerable in order to inflame the bewildered and angry.

Those forms of misused nationalism and populism are a salutary reminder of just how fragile democracy is, how it can never be taken for granted, how easily it can be undermined when leaders and citizens turn away, not only from democratic rule and its discourse of respect, but proceed to deny opposing views any legitimacy, curtail civil liberties, and attempt to limit freedom of expression through undermining freedom of the press.

What a great failure it is that less than three generations after the catastrophe that was World War II, and given our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, the fruits of new science and technology are being turned, not to the promotion and preservation of peace, but to the pursuit and prosecution of war, to a resile of old forms of hatred, exclusion and intolerance, to a discourse coarsened by its acceptance of aggression as the language of media and the street.

We must all have the courage to ask how we have come to be losing the discourse of peace to the discourse of fear, and how the international armaments industry occupies a space that should be filled by these seeking to meet the needs of sufficiency in food, shelter, education and cooperation, and indeed how we have come to accept the allocation of ecology, society and even peace to such a narrow and limited version of economy – a chronically imbalanced approach that has served us so badly and with such destructive consequences. We must combine our efforts to achieve the alternative: the widespread adoption of a new paradigm of sustained peace and development.

And yet, how depressing it is that the obvious parallels between the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and our contemporary humanitarian and democratic crises appear to be lost on many. A 2018 survey found that 22 percent of adult Americans had never heard of the Holocaust, while 41 percent of Americans did not know what Auschwitz was, rising to 66 percent of millennials. We in Europe cannot be complacent either. A 2018 survey of seven European countries found that 5 percent had never heard of the Holocaust, with a quarter only knowing “a little bit”, and awareness levels lowest amongst young people.

This is precisely why it is vital that awareness of the Holocaust and the rise of Fascism in Europe in the 1930s should be a core part of the history curriculum across Europe and elsewhere if we are to truly learn the lessons of history.

This also brings to mind the critical ethical questions, as Eli Wiesel, the writer and concentration camp survivor has asked, of how do we remember, how do we mourn the six million Jews and five million others who died?

As anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism and intolerance are once again on the rise across Europe and many parts of the world, we must remember the Holocaust collectively and work together to ensure that hatred and inhumanity is not allowed to spread its dark shadow across Europe and the world.

We must ensure, as new generations emerge and their world becomes further removed from the horrors of the Holocaust, that we tell them that they too can learn from the actions of those who, by averting their gaze, allowed it to happen, who participated in it, who facilitated it. To quote Hannah Arendt, “evil thrives on apathy and cannot survive without it.”

We must ensure that every generation appreciates the shelter that a shared commitment to international law, its norms, practices and decisions provides for us all, of the limitless possibilities that can be achieved from a shared humanity practiced with responsibility and co-operation.

We must preserve sites such as Auschwitz and Birkenau, where I will be tomorrow to represent the Irish people at the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Such sites of genocidal acts are visible and powerful reminders of the callous, wilful annihilation of innocent people that was the fruit of hatred, racism and intolerance that was permitted to flourish unhindered, and from which future generations can learn of the insidious dangers of extremism.

Let us commit, as a bulwark to our democracy, on this Holocaust Memorial Day to remembering the atrocities of the Shoah and the bigotry, prejudice and denial of the dignity and rights of the ‘Other’ which had led to it.

Honouring our commitments under the Stockholm Declaration and the political declaration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, of which Ireland is a member, let us commit to ensuring that all those who lost their lives in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and in all the other concentration camps where Jews and other minority groups were confined and killed, will not be forgotten now or into the future.

As we remember, let us ensure too that we do not become passive observers of prejudice or inequality in our society, but be alert to the rise of racism and hate speech, continue to share a common obligation to value and uphold democracy, human dignity, liberty, equality, and the irreducible, indivisible rights and dignity of a shared humanity.

Beir Beannacht

Go raibh maith agaibh.