Never Again - Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

Speech delivered by Patrick Corrigan at Holocaust Memorial Day event held by North Down Borough Council, Northern Ireland – June 27 2014

Thank you for inviting me to speak here today.

It is an honour to address you all and especially to be here with the Mayor, other elected representatives, fellow members of Amnesty International, especially from our North Down branch, children of Millisle Primary School and Larry Kitzler, as a representative of those who survived the Holocaust thanks to the Kindertransport, the Millisle farm and our link to that terrible time of the Europe of seventy years ago.

I am proud to have been involved with the organisation of the first three annual Northern Ireland Holocaust Memorial Day events, the first of which was held by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister back in 2002. That experience brought me into contact with survivors of the Holocaust and of other genocides since, including that in Rwanda, the twentieth anniversary of which occurs this year.

Holocaust Memorial Day gives us an opportunity to reflect, mourn and remember what happened in the Holocaust and in all genocides since. It reminds us how important it is to learn lessons from the Holocaust and the need to stand up and speak out against racism, anti-semitism, islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, sectarianism and other forms of intolerance still all too common in our world.

Holocaust Memorial Day exists to ensure we remember.  To ensure that as the Second World War fades in time, the lessons we should draw from it do not.  

January 27th 1945, 69 years ago today, was the date the Russian Red Army liberated Auschwitz Birkenau.  The Allies already knew what was happening but only as they defeated Germany from East and West was the full horror exposed, despite desperate efforts by the retreating Nazis to destroy evidence.

What is left to history – and to those who visit today -  are the freezing huts, the pits, the gas chambers. Each one a grim reminder of what people suffered, through no fault of their own, but because they were born to Jewish families; or were Roma gypsies, had left-wing political views, were gay, were different.

As we know, the result of the hate-filled Nazi ideology and the industrial might harnessed to give it effect, was 6 million dead, and a world still in shock to this day.

As we gather here sixty-nine years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must continue to stand up against hatred and prejudice wherever we see it. And this is why Holocaust Memorial Day is so significant.

It’s important that we have these events each year to remember, to stand up and to speak out, not only against the Holocaust but all genocides and ethnic slaughter, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and against racist and sectarian violence and other manifestations of prejudice, intolerance and hatred.

We must remember that hatred around the world can take years to ferment and if not challenged can build from division to discrimination to deadly consequences. It is our duty to speak out against it: at home and abroad. It’s no longer enough for us simply to remember and reflect.

It is a day to recall the words of Pastor Martin Niemoeller’s famous poem:

“First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.”

It is always easy to look inward, to think that what happens to others is not our concern.

Indeed international politics has often been founded on the idea that what happens within borders is not something we should interfere in and that the international community only has a duty to act when one country invades another.

But that cannot be so. Borders are not more sacred than human life.  There cannot be absolute rule with impunity within borders. We, who have freedom and are able, have a duty to protect others. Those who organised the Kindertransport and the local people behind the Millisle Farm, knew that well. The Holocaust was seven decades ago.  But the issues it gives rise to are still very much relevant to today’s world.

As we meet here tonight, we know that tens of thousands are losing their lives in war-torn Syria, with millions more forced from their homes, most without free access to life-saving humanitarian aid. Lack of international will has meant that the suffering has gone on much too long and much longer than it might have, if there was greater unity of purpose to end the killing.

Right now, deadly events are also unfolding in the Central African Republic, where militia forces drawn from Muslim and Christian communities are inflicting terrible suffering on civilians from the other community. Thousands are dead and there is a real danger of many more. Unlike in Rwanda, there are now international peacekeepers in place in order to prevent the bloodshed from descending into genocidal slaughter, but sadly not yet in sufficient numbers to stop the killing across the whole country. Without the vigilance and attention of the international community, an even greater human tragedy will unfold than that which has already occurred.

The challenge to deliver lasting peace and justice remains paramount here at home too. We have had our own years of violence, of sectarian division, fear and hatred, of bloodshed and of human rights violations and abuses. We know we all have a job to do to ensure we learn the lessons from our own past, and to ensure that our children are not forced to re-live it.

Holocaust Memorial Day is also a moment to recognise another legacy of the Holocaust. That horrifying experience of authoritarian government and genocide paved the way for the proud international human rights framework we enjoy today.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the world’s governments collectively pledged ‘Never Again’, and out of this commitment emerged the protections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Adopted in 1948, the Declaration laid the foundations for other formal human rights commitments. It directly inspired the European Convention on Human Rights; the continent’s own answer to a dark chapter of tyranny in which even the most fundamental freedoms were comprehensively violated. In answer to years of war and persecution which cost millions their lives, the solution of Europe – and the world – was to better secure human rights in a bid to prevent such brutality in future.

Those values – protection from torture and arbitrary detention; respect for private and family life; freedom of speech and so on – are the precious values we now hold dear. They are freedoms which are truly fundamental; which no-one living in a civilised society should be required to forego. They are rights that millions died for and, with people all over the world still struggling for such values, they remain worth fighting for.

We know that in Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and at other times in Cambodia, in Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia and in Darfur, too many people stood by and did not challenge discrimination and persecution and the subsequent atrocities that flowed from those starting points.

Yehuda Bauer, a Jewish historian and scholar of the Holocaust has written: 

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

Today, every day, we can choose not to be a bystander. That choice is the inspiration behind Amnesty International and the reason why so many people choose to add their voices to the voices of others around the world to speak up for, and to take action to protect the human rights of all, to learn the lessons of the past to create a better future for all our children, in our own country and all over the world.

It is by understanding how and why the Holocaust was allowed to happen, that we can stop it from ever happening again. This is why we are all here today.

The Holocaust is a particularly Jewish tragedy, but it is also an episode of universal significance and of shame from which we can and must learn. So let me move towards a conclusion with a famous quote from the Jewish text, the Talmud, which carries a message for us all – of any religion and none.

It says: “save one life and you have saved the world’.

It is by standing up against hatred, racism, sectarianism and human rights abuses committed against anyone, anywhere that we can all do our part to save one life and save the world.

And this is the greatest memorial we could give to those who lost their lives in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere and the greatest tribute we can pay to those who continue to risk their lives in standing up for human rights.

It may be impossible for us to fully appreciate the sheer scale of suffering during the Holocaust. But we can ensure that the atrocities of those times are never forgotten and that their legacy endures – so that the Holocaust Memorial Day pledge of “Never Again” can one day become a reality for every child, everywhere.

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