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Universal Lessons From the Holocaust

April 7, 2013 By:
Irwin Cotler
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The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

When writing on the Holocaust, I am reminded of the early teachings of my parents — the profundity and pain of which I realized only years later — that there are things in Jewish history — in human history — too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened.

Indeed, the Holocaust was uniquely evil in its genocidal singularity — where biology was inescapably destiny — a war against the Jews in which, as Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel put it, “not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

It appears that the full dimensions of this unprecedented evil – of these unfathomable horrors – are only now becoming fully known. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, after 13 years of research, has disclosed the full extent of Nazi criminality, revealing the existence of some 42,500 documented ghettos, killing centres, forced labour camps, P.O.W. camps, brothels, and “care centers” where babies were aborted or killed. The sheer magnitude of this revelation has shocked even some Holocaust experts.

As it happens, this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day coincidences with important moments of remembrance and reminder, of bearing witness and of warning:

  • The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, recalling the heroic resistance of a starved, decimated Jewish remnant;
  • The eve of the 65th anniversary of the Genocide Convention – the “Never Again” convention – which, tragically, has been violated again and again;
  • The eve of the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the international magna carta of the UN – which, as former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust,” intended “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war;” and where, as he reminded us, “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.”

On this anniversary of anniversaries, we must ask ourselves: what have we learned, and what must we do?

The first lesson is the importance of zachor, of remembrance itself. 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 they have 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 courts affirmed in upholding the constitutionality of anti-hate legislation, “the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.” These, as the Courts put it, are the chilling facts of history. These are the catastrophic effects of racism – the whole reaffirmed in the recent unanimous judgment of the Canadian Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of both human rights and criminal anti-hate legislation.

Moreover, we have been witnessing, yet again, a state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide whose epicenter is Ahmadinejad’s Iran, as distinct from that of the people and publics of Iran, who are themselves the object of Ahmadinejad’s repression. As the unanimous report of the all-party Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Canadian Parliament put it, “Iran has already committed the crime of incitement to genocide, prohibited by the Genocide Convention” while calling on State Parties to the convention to hold the Iranian government to account.

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 – of the international community as bystander.

As it happens, this Holocaust Remembrance Day coincides also with the remembrance of the Rwandan Genocide, where from April to July close to one million Rwandans were murdered. What makes the Rwandan genocide so unspeakable is not only the horrors 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.

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. Let there be no mistake: indifference in the face of evil is acquiescence with evil itself; it is complicity with evil.

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 – physicians, church leaders, judges, lawyers, engineers, architects, educators, and the like. Holocaust crimes, then, were also the crimes of the Nuremberg elites.

It is our responsibility, then, to speak truth to power, and 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 ground for prosecuting war crimes – are part of our learning and our legacy; and that Holocaust education underpins these perspectives as it informs our principles on justice and injustice.

The fifth lesson concerns the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable – as found expression in the triage of Nazi racial hygiene: the Sterilization Laws, the Nuremberg Race Laws, and the Euthanasia Program – the whole targeting of those “whose lives were not worth living.”

It is not unrevealing, as Professor Henry Friedlander points out in his work on “The Origins of Genocide,” that the first group targeted for killing were the Jewish disabled – the whole anchored in the science of death, the medicalization of ethnic cleansing, the sanitizing even of the vocabulary of destruction.

It is our responsibility, then, as citoyens du monde to give voice to the voiceless, to empower the powerless, be they the disabled, poor, elderly, women victims of violence, or the vulnerable child – 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 – the Swedish non-Jew, and Canada’s first honorary citizen, who 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 even shudder to mention, genocide; and always against indifference, against being bystanders to injustice.

Irwin Cotler is the former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada and emeritus professor of law at McGill University. He is co-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Group for Human Rights in Iran and has written extensively on the Iranian threat. This article first appeared in the Times of Israel.

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