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Speech on National Holocaust Memorial Day

Mansion House, Dublin, 30th January, 2022

A shoilse Ardmhéara Bhaile Átha Cliath,

A aíonna uilig,

Fellow guests,

Tá an-áthas orm a bheith anseo inniu.

I welcome this opportunity to be with you all here today as we mark National Holocaust Memorial Day. May I thank the Holocaust Education Trust for its invitation, and the Lord Mayor of Dublin for hosting this important event.

May I begin by saying how honoured we are to have Holocaust survivors Suzi Diamond, Tomi Reichental and Joe Veselsky with us today. Their presence and words are so important in bringing us closer and helping us to bear witness to the depravity to which humanity was brought and sank during Nazi Germany, that nadir of human existence which we now refer to as the Holocaust.

The personal recollections of survivors, deeply painful as they are for they remind us of the millions of individual stories all of which together make up the collective experience of the Shoah – families torn from each other, deaths suffered, some witnessed, others in solitary conditions. We think of the monument to hate that the Holocaust is and what it teaches us, teaches us of how hate of ‘the Other’ is generated, sustained inter-generationally tolerated, made possible by the indifference of those who should have cared, and how such indifference can have such consequences. Thus, on a day like this, it is so appropriate to recall the bravery, generosity of spirit, tenacity and great will to survive which are also a central part of the Holocaust event we are sharing.

It is now 77 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, that complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. We know now that the Nazis and their allies ran more than 44,000 camps, ghettos, and other sites of detention, persecution, forced labour, and murder during the Holocaust.

Our horror of their existence as we recall may move us, but we must never forget the deeper challenge of asking how did it come to be; what indifference beyond any manipulation of ignorance and hate, allowed it to come to become the end point of horror we commemorate.

Yes, more than three-quarters of a century on, the visible signs of all of the destruction of World War II may have largely been erased from the rebuilt cities and towns of Europe. Fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain to tell their stories with each passing year. As we move further away in time from the events of that darkest period of history, it becomes ever more important that we understand the obligation that lies on all of us to recall and seek to unravel the ideas, words and pieces of communication that led to that chapter in our relatively recent history, its consequences, and, crucially, what we must learn from it.

It would be a heinous error to consign the Holocaust, or the lessons that should be learnt from it, to a past that is now assumed no longer to have any relevance in our contemporary circumstances. It challenges us to identify and confront hate speech.

As we reflect with solemnity on this dark chapter of our shared European history, a number of important questions arise. How should we best remember the Holocaust in an ethical manner? How can we ensure that its history is not forgotten?  Ask ourselves as to what extent can any memorial, other than to convert our commitment to never forget into a commitment to end hate speech? What can best assist us in truly comprehending the experiences of victims of the Holocaust?  It is important as to how we symbolise the enormity of the atrocity that is the Holocaust, the vast number of its victims, while still honouring each unique life that was lost—the schoolchild, the brother, the aunt, the shopkeeper, the chemist— all of this must challenge us.  Questions such as how can the Jewish people and all the minorities sent to the camps in the Holocaust be represented inclusively and recalled appropriately? I suggest that these are all important questions that can benefit from ongoing consideration and public discussion.

There are many ways in which individuals, groups, and nations, in Germany and around the world, have sought to confront the memory of the Holocaust. Some countries have made Holocaust denial a crime, punishable by a fine and imprisonment. Some governments have encouraged or mandated education about the Holocaust. Scholars, journalists, survivors, and novelists have helped the public remember the Holocaust through their writing. When Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the chairman of the Nobel committee remarked,

“Through his books, Elie Wiesel has given us not only an eyewitness account of what happened, but also an analysis of the evil powers which lay behind the events.”

In more recent times, and close to home, as part of the Crocus Project, Sabina and I planted yellow crocus bulbs at Áras an Uachtaráin last October.  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. Those crocuses are now beginning to bloom.

Yet, in the ten years since I first spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration in Dublin, it is profoundly worrying to witness the trend of the emergence and rise of extremist language and politics across the streets of Europe, and beyond, rhetoric that seeks to exploit what is often a loss of trust, but much more frequently, informs a presentation of the ‘Other’ that invokes fear, exclusion and rejection.

As anti-Semitism, 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 lessons it taught the world so cruelly are heard and understood, and we must work together to ensure that hatred and the inhumanity of anti-migrant feeling, for example, are not allowed to spread their dark shadow across Europe and the world.

Dwindling Holocaust knowledge, as part of a dangerous amnesia to past atrocities as to the sources of hatred, is driving global anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred. This is why it is vital that awareness of the Holocaust, must examine all of the forces of hate, exclusion and collusive silences that gave rise to Fascism in Europe in the 1930s why it should be a part of the history curriculum across Europe and elsewhere so that we might truly learn, to internalise the necessary gains from attention to the lessons of history.

We must ensure, as new generations emerge, and their world ostensibly becomes further removed, in measured time, from the horrors of the Holocaust, that they too can learn from the consequences of actions or inaction of those who, by their culpable indifference, their averted gaze, allowed it to happen, who participated in it, who facilitated it. As Hannah Arendt put it so well, “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 provides for us all, of the limitless, enriching possibilities that can be achieved from a shared humanity practiced with responsibility and co-operation.

In doing so, we can achieve an empowering ethical remembrance that may even allow for the possibility of an emancipatory future, one that is alert to the rise of racism and the rhetoric of hatred, but continues to foster a commitment to plant the seeds of a better future into the soil of a bitter past, seeds that will grow into the strength to value and uphold democracy, human dignity, liberty, equality, and the irreducible, inseparable, indivisible rights of our common humanity.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh