Standing here in the midst of the mass graves of Bergen-Belsen, we are inexorably reminded that evil exists in this world. Ominous clouds hover once again over parts of Europe. Sixty-eight years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 68 years after the end of the Holocaust, we may not ignore a disturbing resurgence of racist and neo-fascist political groups in at least three countries that belong to both the European Union and NATO.
In Greece, the viciously racist, anti-Semitic and antimigrant Golden Dawn party is emerging, in World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder’s words, as “the new Nazis.”
And we cannot, we must not, ignore reports that Golden Dawn is at least in contact if not conspiring with like-minded groups in other countries and has opened offices in the United States, Canada, Australia, as well as in Germany.
In Hungary, where 70 years ago hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to their death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the government was forced to ban a rally by anti-Semitic thugs in front of the main synagogue of Budapest under the horrific slogan, “Give Gas.” Early next month, while the World Jewish Congress will be holding its plenary assembly in Budapest as a demonstration of solidarity with the Hungarian Jewish community, members of the reactionary anti-Jewish, anti-Roma and anti-gay Jobbik party are planning an “anti-Zionist” demonstration there.
There can be no doubt that, as president Lauder wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung earlier this month, the anti-Semitic declarations of Jobbik’s leaders “deliberately evoke memories of the pro-Hitler wartime regime in Hungary.”
Here in Germany, we note with profound consternation and dismay that the federal government seems to be acquiescing in the legitimization of contemporary far-right extremism by refusing to support efforts to ban the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, or NPD. Last month, The New York Times quoted Philipp Rösler, the head of the Free Democratic Party, as defending his government’s decision not to seek to outlaw the NPD with the comment, “Stupidity can’t be banned.”
Standing here beside the Jewish Monument of Bergen-Belsen, which my father dedicated on the first anniversary of the liberation in 1946, we must remind Germany’s political and intellectual leaders that racism, anti-Semitism, fascism, intolerance, homophobia and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and memorials to the Nazi deportation of Roma and Sinti should never be dismissed cavalierly as mere indications of stupidity.
They are manifestations of evil, of the very evil that led to the murder of the tens of thousands who lie buried in the mass graves that surround us and the millions who were gassed at Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and the other death camps of Nazi Europe.
We will not, we may not, tolerate their resurrection in any form, anywhere, but especially not in Germany.
We are gratified by the news that the Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes in Ludwigsburg is considering prosecuting some 50 former Auschwitz guards for their role in the genocide of the Jews of Europe, but we cannot ignore the fact that such prosecutions, if they ever take place, will occur many decades too late.
Let us never lose sight of the simple fact that Anne Frank, who died here of typhus a month before the liberation, wrote her famous observation – “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart” – while she was still in her hiding place in Amsterdam, while she still felt protected by Miep Gies and the other Dutch Christians who tried to save her and her family. I have no doubt that Anne Frank’s faith in the goodness of humankind was profoundly shaken if not completely erased after she was betrayed on August 4, 1944, and taken first to the Westerbork transit camp, then to Auschwitz, and eventually to Bergen-Belsen.
Which is not to say that we should ever forget those non-Jews like Miep Gies, like Pastor André Trocmé in le Chambon-sur-Lignon, and like former Polish foreign minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who helped Jews in the years of the Holocaust, often at the risk of their own lives. And we remember with profound gratitude the British officers and soldiers who announced to the inmates of the “horror camp” of Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, that “you are free,” “Ihr seit frei.”
Together with the US troops who liberated Buchenwald, Dachau and so many other German concentration camps in the spring of 1945, and the Soviet soldiers who entered Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, these Allied soldiers gave the gift of life to the surviving remnants of European Jewry, and we are eternally in their debt.
Seventy years ago today, the Warsaw Ghetto was in flames on the third day of the armed uprising, with its heroic Jewish fighters writing a glorious page of defiance into the annals of history. But let us also not forget the thousands upon thousands of Poles in Warsaw who heard the gunfire and saw the smoke but went about their business. And while more than 40,000 Jews died a horrific public death, a merry-go-round was entertaining Poles just outside the Ghetto walls in Krasinski Square.
Today, let us remember that our obligation is to the dead who lie buried here as well as to history and to the future. The Holocaust, the Shoah, was possible because human beings who could have stopped it allowed it to take place, just as they allowed the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and elsewhere to take place.
We come here every year to assure the dead of Belsen that we have not abandoned them, that we will never abandon them. But equally important, we must recommit ourselves once again in this sacred place to do everything in our collective power not to allow the spiritual and ideological heirs of the National Socialist regime to arise anywhere in the world as a new scourge of humankind.
The author, born in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen on May 1, 1948, is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.
He teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.