A visit to Auschwitz and the past

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This year’s ob­ser­vance of the In­ter­na­tional Re­mem­brance Day on Jan 27— the an­niver­sary of the lib­er­a­tion of the Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp — falls at a time when there are re­minders all around us of the dan­gers of for­get­ting. This year marks two decades since the geno­cide in Rwanda. Con­flicts in Syria, South Su­dan and the Cen­tral African Repub­lic have taken on dan­ger­ous com­mu­nal di­men­sions. Big­otry still cour­ses through our so­ci­eties and pol­i­tics. The world can and must do more to elim­i­nate the poi­son that led to the camps.

I vis­ited Auschwitz-Birke­nau last Novem­ber. A chill wind was blow­ing that day; the ground was rocky un­der­foot. But I had an over­coat and sturdy shoes; my thoughts went to those who had had nei­ther: the Jews and other pris­on­ers who were forced into the camp. I thought of those cap­tives stand­ing naked for hours in icy weather, torn from their fam­i­lies and shorn of their hair as they were read­ied for the gas cham­bers. I thought of those who were kept alive only to be worked to death. Above all, I re­flected on how un­fath­omable the Holo­caust re­mains even to­day. The cru­elty was so pro­found; the scale so large; the Nazi world­view so warped and ex­treme; the killing so or­ga­nized and cal­cu­lated na­ture.

The bar­racks at Birke­nau seemed to stretch to the hori­zon in ev­ery di­rec­tion — a vast fac­tory of death. The “Book of Names” iden­ti­fy­ing mil­lions of Jewish vic­tims filled a room yet con­tained just a frac­tion of the toll, which also en­com­passed Poles, Roma, Sinti and Soviet pris­on­ers of war, dis­si­dents, ho­mo­sex­u­als, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and oth­ers. I was es­pe­cially moved by a video show­ing Euro­pean Jewish life in the 1930s — scenes of fam­ily meals and vis­its to the beach, mu­si­cal and the­atre per­for­mances, wed­dings and other rit­u­als, all sav­agely ex­tin­guished through sys­tem­atic mur­der unique in hu­man his­tory.

Mar­ian Turski, a Pol­ish Jew who sur­vived Auschwitz and is to­day the vice-pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Auschwitz Com­mit­tee, walked me through the in­fa­mous “Ar­beit Macht Frei” gate — this time in free­dom. Rabbi Yis­rael Meir Lau, a sur­vivor of Buchen­wald and now the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, stood with me on the ramp where the trans­port trains un­loaded their hu­man cargo, and re­counted the trau­matic mo­ment when the swift flick of an SS com­man­der’s in­dex fin­ger meant the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death. I grieve for those who died in the camps, and I am awed by those who lived — who bear sor­row­ful mem­o­ries yet have shown the strength of the hu­man spirit.

I was also ac­com­pa­nied by stu­dents from the In­ter­na­tional Youth Meet­ing Cen­tre in Oswiecim, who work to build bridges among peo­ple and na­tions. L’dor v’dor, Mar­ian Turski said to me — He­brew for “from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion”, the pass­ing on of wis­dom. It is for this rea­son that Auschwitz-Birke­nau is on UNESCO’s World Her­itage List. We can­not build the fu­ture with­out re­mem­ber­ing the past; what hap­pened once can re­cur.

Com­bat­ing ha­tred is among the car­di­nal mis­sions of the United Na­tions. Our hu­man rights mech­a­nisms work to pro­tect peo­ple. Our spe­cial courts and tri­bunals strive to com­bat im­punity, de­liver jus­tice and de­ter vi­o­la­tions. UN spe­cial ad­vis­ers on Geno­cide Preven­tion and the Re­spon­si­bil­ity to Pro­tect scan the world for the pre­cur­sors of atroc­ity crimes. The Al­liance of Civ­i­liza­tions ini­tia­tive seeks to counter man­i­fes­ta­tions of ha­tred, from anti-Semitism and Is­lam­o­pho­bia to ul­tra-na­tion­al­ism and bias against mi­nori­ties. Our new “Rights Up Front” ef­fort seeks to strengthen early ac­tion to pre­vent grave abuses of hu­man rights.

For al­most a decade, the “United Na­tions and the Holo­caust Out­reach Pro­gramme” has been work­ing with teach­ers and stu­dents on all con­ti­nents to pro­mote tol­er­ance and uni­ver­sal val­ues. The pro­gram’s new­est ed­u­ca­tional pack­age, pro­duced in part­ner­ship with the United States Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Mu­seum, will help in­tro­duce Holo­caust stud­ies into classrooms in coun­tries rang­ing from Brazil and Nige­ria to Rus­sia and Ja­pan. At this year’s re­mem­brance cer­e­mony at the UN Head­quar­ters, the fea­tured speaker will be Steven Spiel­berg, whose Shoah In­sti­tute for Vis­ual His­tory and Ed­u­ca­tion was a land­mark in pre­serv­ing sur­vivor tes­ti­mony.

A few steps from the cre­ma­to­rium at Auschwitz, I took a mo­ment to my­self for re­flec­tion. I touched a barbed wire fence — no longer elec­tri­fied but still sharp and in­tim­i­dat­ing. I felt over­whelmed by the enor­mity of what had hap­pened within, and hum­bled by the courage and sac­ri­fice of the sol­diers and lead­ers of many na­tions who de­feated the Nazi men­ace.

My hope is that our gen­er­a­tion, and those to come, will sum­mon that same sense of col­lec­tive pur­pose to pre­vent such horror from hap­pen­ing again any­where, to any­one or any group, and build a world of equal­ity for all. The au­thor is the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the United Na­tions.

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