April 17, 2012

The Holocaust is about today and tomorrow

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Holocaust Remembrance Day is on Warsaw Ghetto uprising anniversary, when poorly armed Jews held off armored Nazi brigade.

Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on the anniversary of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto upraising in 1943, when an armored brigade of Nazi SS herding its population to death camps, paid a heavy price in blood for weeks at the hands of Jewish fighters with Molotov cocktails. January 27, the commemoration day designated by the United Nations General Assembly, is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian troops in1945. These two dates reflect an evolving perception of the Holocaust in our newly inflamed post-September11 world, from a uniquely Jewish, to a universal catastrophe.

As a survivor of Auschwitz, today Honorary Ambassador and Special Envoy of UNESCO for Holocaust education, I am commemorating that tragedy with the Jews of Turkey – a country that has welcomed and protected them from the time of Spanish Inquisition to Hitler’s “Final Solution.” My mission is not only to lament and honor the victims, but also to alert world leaders and the public at large to the risk of new man-made catastrophes that may destroy their world, as they once destroyed mine.

For the ashes of the Holocaust speak to us about the present and the future, as much as the past. In the 1930s, when rampant economic and political upheavals unleashed insecurity and fear, popular folly recruited diabolic “saviors.”

This is how democracies perished and the hunt for scapegoats began. In the years following my liberation from Dachau by American GIs, new genocides, ethnic cleansings and other mass atrocities have confirmed that the unthinkable is again possible; with plagues of toxic gas, atomic weapons and ballistic missiles in the hands of new despots and fanatics.

Thus, when incendiary demagogues, with nuclear ambitions reopen our wounds by calling the Holocaust a “myth,” we the last living survivors, have a visceral obligation to testify that it was both a gruesome reality for us and an existential warning for all mankind of horrors yet to come. But our words must be followed by action, with concrete policies of remembrance and education that can raise public awareness of how such slaughters erupt and how they can be prevented. Today I can attest that this process has begun.

For last year’s commemoration of the Holocaust I returned to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the behest of “Project Aladdin,” launched by the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and UNESCO in the context of its program for peace and human rights. Some 200 hundred Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders from all continents, including heads of state, mayors of major capitals, chief rabbis, grand muftis and cardinals also made the pilgrimage.

In that cursed and sacred place, where I saw, in my adolescence, the proud ship of civilization go under, where my entire family and all the children of my school were annihilated, I was asked to bear witness.

Surrounded by the mind-boggling relics of gas chambers and crematoria which once spewed fire and smoke, united by common pain and shared moral values, our unlikely assembly managed, miraculously, to transcended all racial, religious and political strife and pray together to the same Abrahamic God.

In the wake of that rare moment of ecumenical and multi-racial solidarity, a small group of us was invited to appear before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the US House of Representatives. In that more worldly forum I reiterated my the warning that unless we dissipate the ignorance and distortions regarding the Holocaust rife in many countries, espouse the core universal values inherent in our great creeds – spiritual and secular – and unite against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and terrorism, the forces of darkness will return with a vengeance to doom our chances for a safer and better future.

BUT MY principal focus was on the promising potential for expanded dialogue, revealed by the encounters in Paris, Auschwitz and Washington.

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, who was also with us, confirmed that potential with there words: “I came to see for myself the evil humans can do to humans, and to say that those who deny the Holocaust of Auschwitz or the genocide of Srebrenica, are committing genocides themselves.” True, one swallow does not make a Spring, but all his coreligionists, of every stripe and continent, were as profoundly moved by his declaration and shocked by the palpable evidence of Nazi barbarism, as the rest of us. It was also obvious that they were equally disturbed by the barbarians of today who kill and maim innocents at random, including their own kin. This raises a hope for more tolerable coexistence between vast, silent majorities of people who don’t consider themselves “sworn enemies”. That “Project Aladdin” is now making available, in cooperation with local institutions, Turkish, Arabic and Iranian versions of Holocaust books like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” films like “Shoah” and other links for people to people contacts, suggests that the hope is real.

It also suggests that United Nations organizations, especially UNESCO, entrusted with lofty, fundamental responsibilities, must not be derailed from their legitimate, specialized tasks by political or diplomatic skirmishes of an altogether different nature. All the more so in a deteriorating international environment which is pushing us toward fateful crossroads: retreat into a dark age of unmanageable global turmoil, or move forward with new leaps of imagination, innovation and creativity that can revive the enthusiasm and energies of younger generations.

Having experienced in the course of my tortuous odyssey the lowest depths and a few summits of the human condition, I have learned and written that there is a way free of hatred and violence to deal with the intractable challenges of our time. That way calls for collective efforts to liberate the inexhaustible resources of human intelligence, knowledge and compassion that exist in ample measure among peoples of every region, race, color and faith. Developed and made accessible through the precious channels of education, science and culture, these resources can usher in a new era of tolerance, prosperity and peace – before it is too late.

The writer, a former ambassador, is an international lawyer in New York, London and Paris, with doctorates from Harvard and the Sorbonne. His books, published in 20 languages, include Coexistence and Commerce and Of Blood and Hope.