Auschwitz, the Holocaust and human rights: Universal lessons for our time

There are 13 lessons that bear recall and reminder, which should serve as an action guide for parliamentarians, as well as for civil society.

A red rose lies at Gleis 17 (platform 17) holocaust memorial at a former cargo railway station in Berlin-Grunewald (photo credit: REUTERS)
A red rose lies at Gleis 17 (platform 17) holocaust memorial at a former cargo railway station in Berlin-Grunewald
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week, we marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the most brutal of the extermination camps.
Two years ago, I participated in the largest ever inter-parliamentary delegation to mark International Remembrance Day at Auschwitz- Birkenau.
For me, as for my fellow Jewish and non-Jewish parliamentarians, it was a uniquely moving and painful moment – of bearing witness to horrors too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened.
From 1941 to 1944, 1.3 million people were murdered at Auschwitz – of whom 1.1 million were Jews, recalling Elie Wiesel’s dictum that “the Holocaust was a war against the Jews in which not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”
As I reflect once again on my visit to the Valley of Death, there are 13 lessons that bear recall and reminder, which should serve as an action guide for parliamentarians, as well as for civil society.
Lesson one: Zachor – The imperative of remembrance
The first lesson is the importance of zachor, of remembrance of the victims defamed, demonized and dehumanized as prologue and justification for genocide, and where the mass murder of six million Jews, and of millions of non-Jews, is not a matter of abstract statistics.
As we say at such moments of remembrance, “Unto each person there is a name, each person has an identity, each person is a universe.”
We recited kaddish at various moments of bearing witness, most painfully upon exiting the barracks containing the crematoria, recalling that “whoever saves a single life it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe.” Thus, the abiding imperative which parliamentarians must imbibe and act upon: We are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.
Lesson two: The danger of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide
The second enduring lesson is that the Holocaust succeeded not only because of the industry of death of which the crematoria were a cruel reminder, but because of the Nazis’ state-sanctioned ideology of hate. Indeed, in the exhibition at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Jew is depicted as the enemy of humanity, where humanity could only be redeemed by the death of the Jew. As the Canadian Supreme Court affirmed, “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.” Tragically, this remains an unlearned lesson and an oft repeated crime. In Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, Darfur and elsewhere, the genocidal incitement – as the Supreme Court of Canada again affirmed in the Mugesera case – constitutes a crime in and of itself, whether or not genocidal acts follow. Parliamentarians have a responsibility to recognize, address and redress this crime.
Lesson three: the danger of anti-Semitism
The third lesson is the danger of anti-Semitism, the oldest and most enduring of hatreds and the most lethal. If the Holocaust is a metaphor for radical evil, anti-Semitism is a metaphor for radical hatred. Let there be no mistake about it: Jews died at Auschwitz because of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism did not die, and while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews. Parliamentarians should endorse and act upon the London Declaration and the Ottawa Protocol for Combating Anti-Semitism, which provide metrics for identifying and evaluating anti-Semitism old and new.
Lesson four: Holocaust denial – from assaultive speech to criminal conspiracy
The Holocaust denial movement – the cutting edge of anti-Semitism old and new, as our parliamentary visit to Auschwitz dramatized – is not just an assault on Jewish memory and human dignity in its accusation that the Holocaust is a hoax; rather, it constitutes an international criminal conspiracy to cover up the worst crimes in history. Here is the historiography of the Holocaust in its most tragic, bitter irony – in its ultimate Orwellian inversion.
First, we move from the genocide of the Jewish people, to a denial that the genocide ever took place; then in a classic Orwellian cover-up of an international conspiracy, the Holocaust denial movement whitewashes the crimes of the Nazis, as it excoriates the “crimes” of the Jews.
It not only holds that the Holocaust was a hoax, but maligns the Jews for fabricating the hoax, something which is now being repeated in the genocidal denial in Rwanda. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to unmask the bearers of false witness – to expose the criminality of the deniers as we protect the dignity of their victims.
Lesson five: Indifference and inaction
The fifth painful and poignant lesson is that these Holocaust crimes resulted not only from state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and genocide, but from crimes of indifference, from conspiracies of silence – from the international community as bystander.
As it happens, we will soon be commemorating the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when from April to July 1994, close to one million Rwandans were murdered. What makes the Rwandan genocide so unspeakable is not only the horror of the genocide itself, but that this genocide was preventable.
No one can say that we did not know; we knew, but we did not act, and parliamentarians dithered while Rwandans died.
Indifference and inaction always mean coming down on the side of the victimizer, never the victim.
For years now, we have known, but have yet to act, to stop the slaughter of civilians in Syria, ignoring the lessons of history and mocking the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
Let there be no mistake about it: Indifference and inaction always mean coming down on the side of the victimizer, never the victim. In the face of evil, indifference is acquiescence, if not complicity in evil itself. In this regard, “R2P” (the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine) must be a clarion call for parliamentarians.
Lesson six: Combating mass atrocity and the culture of impunity: The responsibility to bring war criminals to justice
If the last century – symbolized by the Holocaust – was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators were brought to justice, and so, just as there must be no sanctuary for hate, no refuge for bigotry, there must be no base or sanctuary for these enemies of humankind. In this context, the establishment of the International Criminal Court must be seen as the most dramatic development in international criminal law since Nuremberg. But the ICC should not become another opportunity for impunity, as revealed by the inaction regarding Sudanese war criminals, including President al-Bashir, indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
Lesson seven: La trahison des clercs: Speaking truth to power
The seventh lesson is that the Holocaust was made possible not only because of the “bureaucratization of genocide,” as Robert Lifton put it – and as the Nazi desk murderer Adolf Eichmann personified – but because of the trahison des clercs, the complicity of the elites, including physicians, church leaders, judges, lawyers, engineers, architects and educators.
Holocaust crimes, then, were also the crimes of the Nuremberg elites. It is our responsibility, then, as parliamentarians, to speak truth to power, to hold power accountable to truth. The double entendre of Nuremberg – of Nuremberg racism and the Nuremberg principles – must be part of our learning as it is part of our legacy.
Lesson eight: The assault on the vulnerable and powerless
The eighth lesson concerns the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable, as dramatized so painfully at Auschwitz by the remnants of shoes and suitcases, crutches and hair of the murdered. Indeed, it is revealing, as Prof. Henry Friedlander points out in his work titled, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, that the first group targeted for killing were the Jewish disabled.
It is our responsibility, particularly given our role as parliamentarians, to give voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless, be they the disabled, poor, elderly, women victimized by violence, or vulnerable children – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
Lesson nine: Targeted violence against women
The Holocaust – and the genocides since – have included horrific crimes against women.
Moreover, these crimes have not only attended the genocide or been in consequence of it, but have in fact been in pursuit of it. Yet they remain the still unarticulated horror of the genocide of European Jewry.
Seventy years later, that lesson remains to be learned – and acted upon – whether we speak of the horrific crimes against women in the Congo or in Syria. Parliamentarians must appreciate that significant numbers of the world’s population are routinely subject to rape, assault, torture, starvation, humiliation, mutilation and even murder simply because they are female.
Lesson ten: Mass atrocities against children
If there is an atrocity that belies understanding – it is the willful exploitation, maiming and killing of a child – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.
What, then, should be said about the genocide – the mass murder – of children, the destruction of millions of universes, of generations yet unborn and never to be born. As the poet Bialik put it – writing after the Kishinev pogroms in 1905, which killed hundreds of children – “There is no revenge that can be invented for the murder of a child.”
Indeed, the Nazi genocide was the genocide of millions of children, and 1.5 million children perished in the Holocaust of European Jewry.
But we have yet to learn from this most horrific of horrors, let alone act upon it – millions of children the world over are subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, slavery, execution, and recruitment as “child soldiers” incited to terrorize and kill others.
As parliamentarians, we must ensure that protecting children’s rights is at the core of whatever we do – and therefore, of who we are.
Lesson 11: The rescuers
The 11th lesson is the tribute that must be paid to the rescuers, the righteous among the nations, of whom Raoul Wallenberg is metaphor and message. Wallenberg, a Swedish non-Jew, saved more Jews in six months in Hungary in 1944 than almost any single government or organization. Tragically, the man who saved so many was not himself saved by so many who could have. As parliamentarians – particularly from countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia and Israel, where Raoul Wallenberg is an honorary citizen – we have a responsibility to help discover the fate of this great hero of the Holocaust, whom the United Nations called the greatest humanitarian of the twentieth century.
Lesson 12: The legacy of Holocaust survivors
As our visit to Auschwitz reaffirmed, we must remember – and celebrate – the survivors of the Holocaust, the true heroes of humanity.
For they witnessed and endured the worst of inhumanity, but somehow found, in the depths of their own humanity, the courage to go on, to rebuild their lives as they helped build our communities.
Lesson 13: Israel, the Holocaust and human rights
Finally, it is often said that if there had not been a Holocaust, there would not have been a State of Israel, as if six million murdered Jews was the raison d’être for the creation of Israel.
But it is really the other way around: If there had been a State of Israel, there might well not have been a Holocaust or the horrors of Jewish history.
And so, together with them, we must remember – and pledge – that never again will we be indifferent to incitement and hate; never again will we be silent in the face of evil; never again will we indulge racism and anti-Semitism; never again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable; and never again will we be indifferent in the face of mass atrocity and impunity.
We will speak up – and act – against racism, against hate, against anti-Semitism, against mass atrocity, against injustice, and against the crime of crimes whose name we should shudder to mention: genocide.