Universal lessons of the Holocaust

As parliamentarians from around the world gather in Poland on this anniversary of anniversaries, there are a number of lessons of the Holocaust to bear in mind.

Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz 370
(photo credit: reuters)

On Monday, the largest-ever parliamentary delegation to Auschwitz will mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I am privileged to participate in this visit, which will occur at the confluence of important moments in Holocaust commemoration, as it will coincide with several meaningful occasions of remembrance and reminder:

• The 65th anniversary last month of the Genocide Convention – the “Never Again” convention – which, tragically, has been violated again and again;

• The 65th anniversary, also last month, of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the international magna carta of the UN – which, as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said, “emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust,” and was intended “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” In Annan’s words, “a UN that fails to be at the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, denies its history and undermines its future”;
• The eve of the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry; and
• The aftermath of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
As parliamentarians from around the world gather in Poland on this anniversary of anniversaries, there are a number of lessons of the Holocaust to bear in mind.
The first lesson is the importance of zachor, of remembrance. For as we remember the six million Jewish victims of the Shoah – defamed, demonized and dehumanized, as prologue or justification for genocide – we have to understand that the mass murder of six million Jews, and millions of non-Jews, is not a matter of abstract statistics.
For unto each person there is a name, an identity; each person is a universe. As our sages tell us, “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe.”
Conversely, whoever has killed a person, it is as if he has killed an entire universe. Thus, the abiding imperative: We are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.
The second enduring lesson of the Holocaust is that the genocide of European Jewry succeeded not only because of the industry of death and the technology of terror, but because of the state-sanctioned ideology of hate. This teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other, this is where it all begins.
As the Canadian Supreme Court has recognized in upholding the constitutionality of anti-hate legislation, the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words. This finding has been echoed by the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The importance of this lesson is underscored by the incitement to hate and genocide that continues to emanate from the Iranian regime.
The third 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, this year’s Holocaust commemorations take place as the world prepares to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when from April to July close to one million Rwandans were murdered. The Rwandan genocide was particularly tragic not only due to the horrors of the genocide itself, but to the fact that it was preventable.
No one can say that we did not know; we knew, but we did not act.
Today, we know 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.
The fourth enduring lesson of the Holocaust is that it was made possible not only because of the “bureaucratization of genocide,” as Robert Lifton put it, 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, to speak truth to power, to hold power accountable to truth, and to ensure that the double entendre of Nuremberg – of the Nuremberg Laws that enshrined racism as well as the Nuremberg Principles that laid the groundwork for prosecuting war crimes – are part of our learning and our legacy.
The fifth lesson concerns the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable – as found expression in the triad of Nazi racial hygiene: the Sterilization Laws, the Nuremberg Race Laws, and the Euthanasia Program – all of which targeted those “whose lives were not worth living.”
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, then, as citizens of the world, 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.
Sixth 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 four months in Hungary in 1944 than any single government or organization.
Finally, 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.
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 we will 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.
Never again will we see evil and stand idly by.
Irwin Cotler is a Canadian member of Parliament, and a former Canadian justice minister and attorney-general. He is a professor of law (emeritus) at McGill University in Montreal.