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U.N. Leaders, Others Speak at Annual Holocaust Commemoration

By: George Baumgarten

In what has become an event of increasing significance—and magnitude, the United Nations recently held its annual Holocaust Commemoration, on 27 January, which has come to be called the “International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust”. The date marks the anniversary of the Liberation of the massive Nazi Death Camp complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Soviet Red Army, on 27 January 1945.

The event featured addresses by the U.N.’s Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, as well as the President of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, and by several other speakers and several living Holocaust survivors.

Secretary-General Guterres began by invoking the names of Auschwitz, Sobibor and Treblinka—three of the six Nazi Death Camps in Poland dedicated to the systematic eradication of their victims. In those six camps—as well as other camps and places of murder (Primarily in Eastern Europe), the Nazis murdered some six million Jews (1.5 million of them children) and about five million others. They were Roma (Gypsies), Homosexuals, Communists, and other categories of persons whom the oppressors deemed beneath the standards of their “master race”. He noted the impossibility of observing a minute of silence for each victim—such an observance would require no less than seven years

He noted the silence of the world, in the face of such horror. His own native Portugal had a policy of denying safe haven to refugees. But he lauded the courage of the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes. De Sousa Mendes issued some 30,000 visas—10,000 of them to Jews—enabling their holders to escape via Lisbon. For this, he was severely punished by the “Portuguese dictator of the time”. That dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, was well-known to the Secretary-General, who grew up in his domain, and was one of the young Catholic Socialist opponents who fought against his rule, prior to the climactic “Carnation Revolution” of April 1974. Many years later, after his death, Sousa Mendes was recognized by Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Authority in Israel), as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”.

Guterres noted that it is almost impossible to believe that such an event really happened. “Yet it did happen”. And there are increasing cases and episodes of holocaust denial, and rising anti-Semitism. These must be tackled, he said, “root and branch”.

This effort resonates within the U.N., which must strive always to fight the voices of hatred. We should not be deaf to the echoes of the 1930’s, or their “eerie resonance” today. And he notes three realities:

How easily hate speech turns to hate crime.

How societies that have no room for diversity, have no room

for humanity.

How silence in the face of bigotry is complicity.

Humanity must never be silent in the face of hatred, or we risk a repeat of the Holocaust elsewhere.

Abdulla Shahid is the former Foreign Minister of the Maldives, a tiny Muslim island republic, in the Indian Ocean southeast of India. In his speech, he particularly welcomed the Holocaust survivors present, and invoked the memory of its six million victims. He urged all to uphold the truth, and to fight the lies of Holocaust denial.

President Shahid has call his year in office the “Presidency of Hope”. This includes, he said, efforts to “protect human rights and empower people everywhere”.

U.S. Ambassador the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield spoke of the theme for this year’s Holocaust Commemoration: “Memory, Dignity and Justice”. This act of remembering is “the “solemn obligation” of every human being.

But this is a particularly difficult time: “anti-Semitism is on the rise, as are other forms of bigotry and hatred”. Therefore, we must—now and always--”confront and counter” all these forms of hatred. That is why we have “more work to do, to turn remembrance into action, now and in perpetuity”.

George Baumgarten is a UN Correspondent and contributor to Jewish Newspapers in North America

© Copyright 2022 George Alan Baumgarten


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