Speech at National Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration 2024
Dublin Royal Convention Centre, 28 January 2024
A shoilse Ardmhéara Bhaile Átha Cliath, Airí, Teachtaí Dála, go háirithe marthanóirí ón Uileloscadh Suzi Diamond agus Tomi Reichental agus ionadaithe eile d’iadsan a maraíodh san tUileloscadh,
I welcome this opportunity to be present with you all here today as we mark National Holocaust Memorial Day. May I thank Professor Thomas O’Dowd, Chairperson of Holocaust Education Ireland, for the invitation, and may I take the opportunity again to offer every good wish to Chief Rabbi Yoni Wieder on his recent installation as Chief Rabbi of Ireland.
We all are so honoured yet again on this Holocaust Memorial Day 2024 to have Holocaust survivors Suzi Diamond and Tomi Reichental with us, and representative relatives of those who were victims. The personal recollections of Survivors of the Holocaust, deeply painful as they must be for those who make them, are so important, constituting as they do a powerful giving of witness, an invaluable authenticity as context to any words any of us may use, reminding us, as they do, of the millions of individual lives which together make up the collective experience of the Shoah – families murdered, families torn from each other, deaths suffered, sometimes witnessed, and so many others in solitary conditions.
Ensuring that we recall this period ethically, with the fullest context, nothing hidden, that all the victims are remembered, is of the utmost importance.
Today is an opportunity we must take to continue the painful task of breaking the many silences that still exist in relation to the Holocaust, however deeply painful as they may be. As Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel stated in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in 1986:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. [...] Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Today is a day in which we reflect on that monument to hatred that the Holocaust constitutes, we are challenged to engage with the moral challenge of asking what it teaches us, not to shirk the task of recognising as to how hatred of ‘the Other’ is generated, sustained inter-generationally, tolerated, made possible by the apathy of those who should have cared, and we must recognise how such indifference delivered into our times can have the gravest of consequences.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, now 79 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, with our knowledge that the Nazis, and the allies who supported them, ran over 44,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labour, and murder during the Holocaust, it is a time to remember the 6 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, together with the millions more murdered under the deadly attrition of Nazi persecution.
On National Holocaust Memorial Day, it is appropriate, too, to recall the bravery, generosity of spirit of those who have spoken and written of this time, the tenacity and great will to survive, all of which are a central part of the Holocaust story which today we are sharing internationally with others.
It is a privileged opportunity then that we have for all of us to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a day for everyone to recall a terrible darkness, but also to seek the security of light and respond to the reality of a shared but diverse humanity that was rejected and defiled, a day to remember all those millions of people murdered in their name of being ‘different’, because of some characteristic intrinsic to their being, something that was an essential part of their identity – be it their ethnicity, faith or sexual orientation.
Such a recall as we make has a relevance for our present circumstances. We live in a world that is going through a period of rising political authoritarianism, polarisation, and violence. It is an atmosphere that threatens a shared existence, democracy and is one that promotes racism, division and exclusion.
We must remember that the Holocaust, while an event of unique horror, had preceding preparatory circumstances based on a falsity of myth, ignorance, extreme versions of nationhood, of peoples, while it developed incrementally, as with some disgraceful intellectual as well as political support, in a society that gradually accepted laws which removed rights from particular minorities and doing so by giving not only tacit but overt support to such changes. That is why only the fullest recuperation of all the facts of the period, and the period that succeeded it, will suffice.
Together with the Jewish community, Roma and Sinti communities, homosexuals, political prisoners, the physically and intellectually disabled, and anyone else considered a threat to the racism myth and policy of the regime by holding such characteristics of difference were also imprisoned, tortured and murdered.
As we come together today to remember the victims of the Holocaust, it is important that we recognise the very significant trauma of recent events, following the appalling atrocities which took place on 7th October perpetuated by Hamas.
The violence of that action, the killing, abuse and abduction of hostages from their families, of other young people attending a music festival, was a horrific and morally reprehensible act.
If we believe that life itself is what is paramount, that all lives matter, then we must acknowledge too that, since 7th October, too many lives, and particularly those of women and children, have been lost, that over half a million people as we speak are at the edge of famine.
In order for 2024 to see the beginning of the process of recovery for all those who have been so devastated by the events of recent months, including those who have lost their lives in both Israel and Gaza, it is incumbent on all nations to redouble their efforts for an end to the loss of life, an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and to commence the task of achieving such a lasting and meaningful peace as can provide security for Israel, while at the same time realising the rights of the Palestinian people.
When wars and conflicts become accepted or presented as seemingly unending, humanity is the loser. War is not the natural condition of humanity, cooperation is. We must recover and assert this principle at every level – nationally, regionally and internationally, and in our families. We must take steps to challenge hatred and persecution in whatever forms they manifest themselves. We can do this by promoting a world that is free from persecutions based on people’s differences and diversity, such as faith or ethnicity, thus making possible a world that is free, too, from war and conflict.
Holocaust Memorial Day brings us together from many different backgrounds, an occasion that promotes the essential empathy that constitutes a shared humanity, it stresses the importance of learning from the past, and the taking of the necessary actions for a more peaceful future.
As anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, homophobia and intolerance are once again on the rise in parts of Europe and many parts of the world, we must as we remember the Holocaust collectively, ensure the lesson it imposed on the world that such cruelty and hate, of the regarding of others as lesser, inferior in rights or participation, are heard and understood.
The Holocaust was enabled by a regime of systematic murder that began by the manipulation of language and belief and the spreading of fear. We, in our times, must be alert to the identification and confrontation of hate speech in any of its many guises.
We must work together to ensure that hatred and anti-migrant feeling, for example, are not allowed to deepen their shadow across Europe and the world. In the delivery of a moral context to our lives, we are all migrants in time.
I believe that it is vital, as new generations emerge, and their world ostensibly becomes further removed, in measured time, from the horrific event that is the Holocaust, that they are made acutely aware of the consequences of complicit actions of silence, of the averted gaze, of those who, by their culpable indifference, allowed the Holocaust to occur, all of those who participated in it, who facilitated it. We must ensure that every generation understands the horrors of the Holocaust and what it teaches us about the nadir of basic morality to which humanity can sink, and could sink again.
Such a move requires us to confront the horror of this period, but we must never forget the deeper challenge of asking how did it come to be? How did, and how can a process of dehumanisation be so effective and with such little resistance? What indifference, beyond any manipulation of ignorance and hatred, allowed it to become the terminus of horror that we are commemorating today?
Many around the world remember the Holocaust atrocities in different ways. In recent times, as part of the Crocus Project, Sabina and I planted yellow crocus bulbs in the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin. We were joined by a group of children to remember the 1.5-million Jewish children who suffered and perished in the Holocaust and the thousands of other children who were victims of Nazi atrocities.
Let us continue to plant the alternative seeds that may yield a more peaceful co-existence on this our shared, vulnerable planet. May we achieve such an empowering, inclusive, ethical remembrance as not only reminds us of the nadir to which the Holocaust and the preceding hatreds brought humanity, but one that in our times renders us alert to the rise of xenophobia and the rhetoric of hatred. Let our concept of ethical remembrance be one that allows recovery, renewal of the recognition of our shared human vulnerabilities and possibilities, one that continues to uphold an obligation on us all to plant the seeds of an emancipatory future into the poisoned soil of a bitter past.
Beir gach beannacht agus guidhim siochán dúinn uilig d’on todchaí.