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George Baumgarten

Survivors, Ambassadors Speak at U.N. Holocaust Commemoration

by George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, February 4, 2016



     In what is now long-since a varying annual event, survivors of the Holocaust, several U.N. ambassadors and others spoke at a recent commemoration service at the United Nations, on the 71st Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which has become the World Holocaust Memorial Day.


     The event was held in the General Assembly Hall, the U.N.’s largest venue, where debates and other meetings of the full membership of 193 member states are normally held. But this was a very different meeting, with a starkly somber tone. It marked the remembrance of the single greatest act of murder and terror in the history of mankind.


     The official U.N. message was delivered--in the presence of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon—by the President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark. He noted that the U.N. had been marking this occasion since 2005, when the official Holocaust Day was established by a Resolution of the General Assembly. But he pointed to humanity’s failures since the Holocaust’s end seven decades ago: “Sadly, the evidence over the past 70 years suggests that we still have not put the lessons from the past into practice. We still see anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination against the vulnerable tolerated across the world”. And he referred to the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect”: we must concert our efforts to protect vulnerable populations everywhere.


     Israel’s new U.N. Ambassador, Danny Danon, opened the program with a few welcoming words. But rather than deliver the usual ambassadorial address, he made a particular point of foregoing it, in order to hand the lectern to Marta Wise. Wise, born in what was then called “Czechoslovakia” (Now the Czech and Slovak Republics), was arrested by the Nazis and ultimately sent to Auschwitz. She told how she saw the notorious “Angel of Death”, Dr. Joseph Mengele, making his “selections” [of those to die and those others to be sent for slave labor] on the notorious long railway platform (on which this correspondent has himself stood) at the death camp in Birkenau (“Auschwitz II”). Inmates were approached by “porters”, who instructed them as to what to do with their luggage. Naturally, all the luggage was collected after its owners’ executions, and used or destroyed. This correspondent has seen some of that luggage, under glass in the museum pavilions at the old camp (“Auschwitz I”), a former base built by the Austrian Army, prior to World War I. Wise cited also the eternal, unanswerable question: “Where was God?” The proper question, she maintained, was in fact “Where was Man?!


     Ambassador Samantha Power spoke for the United States, as the representative of the “host country”. She told of a cellist in Auschwitz, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who finally ended up in Bergen-Belsen, after one of the notorious “death marches”. Power notes that she “…had to be available at all times to play to SS staff, who wanted to hear some music after sending thousands of people to their death”. She spoke also of the myriad “Righteous Gentiles” (Chasidei Umot Ha’Olam) all over  Europe, who aided their Jewish fellow citizens—often with scant regard for personal safety. And she asked the deep and probing question: “Are we helping?”


     Felix Klein is the Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organizations, of the Federal Republic of Germany. On this, the 71st Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, he noted that the World experienced the “gross barbarity” of the “criminal ideology of National Socialism” (i.e., the Nazi Party). We must remember the survivors, he said. And we wonder, with Elie Wiesel, how men can machine-gun civilians by day, and then go and read Schiller and listen to Bach by night. Remembering her National Socialist past is good for Germany, he said, as we all have a duty to remember.


     Barbara Winton is the daughter of Sir Nicholas Winton, a remarkable Englishman who sprang into action in 1938, when Hitler absorbed the Sudetenland, a territory in Northwestern Czechoslovakia with a heavy ethnic German majority. He arranged for 669 children from the Sudetenland to be put on a train and transported, eventually, to the United Kingdom. And he kept a scrapbook, with all the records. Half a century later, a reunion was arranged: a group of the children (several hundred of whom have never been traced) were introduced to Winton, whom they had never previously met. In 2002, at the age of 93, Nicholas Winton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.


      Ambassador Szabolcs Takacs is a career diplomat from Hungary, who serves as the current Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. He reminded his audience of the importance of the Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust, ethnic groups heavily represented in Hungary (often collectively called “Gypsies”) whose story is often forgotten, or nearly so. And he stressed the particular importance of Holocaust education.


     Zoni Weisz is just one of those people, of whom Takacs spoke. A Sinto from the Netherlands, he was arrested and sent to Westerbork, the major transit camp in the Netherlands. He managed to escape his transport to Auschwitz, just as his Father shouted a last goodbye. He noted that the Roma and Sinti killed in the Holocaust—who numbered some 500,000 people—are truly the “forgotten victims”. Weisz spoke to the German Bundestag as a Roma/Sinti representative, at its first Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, in 2011.


    Haim Roet is a Dutch Jew, born in Amsterdam in 1932. He told how only 35,000 out of the Netherlands’ 140,000 Jews (a scant 25%) survived the War. He told how 1,000 of them were herded into a theater, during the great roundup on Rosh Hashanah 1943. Many of them would be hidden, all over the country. Some would even survive the entire War in hiding, in the heart of Amsterdam. Roet eventually found his way to Israel, and today his son, David Roet, is an Ambassador of Israel, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, under Ambassador Danny Danon.


     Beate Klarsfeld, a Christian German born in Berlin in 1939, has devoted her life to the bringing of Nazi War criminals to justice. She traveled to Damascus, Syria, in search of Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s personal assistant. And she was instrumental in finding the notorious Klaus Barbie (“The Butcher of Lyon”), and having deported from Bolivia to France, to stand trial for Crimes Against Humanity. “It is”, she said, “the collective responsibility of the whole world…to remember”. And among current danger spots which have potential to become venues for genocide, she particularly mentions: Burundi.

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