U.S. Mission to the United Nations reports: Remarks at the UN Holocaust Memorial Ceremony on the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust
Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
January 27, 2016
Hello, everybody – very difficult to follow that extraordinary set of remarks from Miss Wise. It’s such an honor to have her with us and to have all of the Holocaust survivors and liberators who have done us this great honor of joining us today. Thanks also to the Secretary-General, to the President of the General Assembly, and of course to Ambassador Danon, for their remarks.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch attributes her survival in Auschwitz to the fact that she knew how to play the cello. Shortly after being sent to the camp at age 17, she was chosen as a member of its orchestra, which played every morning and evening as the crews of forced laborers departed and returned in march-step through its infamous gate. Anita later recounted, “We also 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.”
As the Red Army – including some brave soldiers who are here with us today – closed in on Auschwitz, Anita was forced to join a massive march to Bergen Belsen. Many did not survive the journey, while those who did arrived to a camp with no food and no water. “Those of us who could still walk were given some string,” Anita said. “We were to tie the arms of the dead together and drag them to a big ditch.” But the prisoners were too weak to do it. Anita recalled, “Corpses were so much part of the landscape that we no longer noticed them as anything unusual.” The “inferno” in Bergen Belsen would not end for Anita and others until the British liberated the camp in April 1945.
When we reflect on the singular horror of the Holocaust, it is often difficult not to lose oneself in the abstraction that comes with speaking of millions upon millions of victims. The scale is so massive as to feel unknowable sometimes – to be able to wrap our minds around that scale, and every individual as part of each of those millions. It’s very, very challenging for each of us. But accounts like the ones we just heard today here from Marta, accounts like Anita’s, accounts that we will hear later today from those who come to this podium, they help puncture the abstraction by focusing on the enormity of suffering experienced by single individual human beings. And they enable us to defy the genocidal mindset that saw these individuals as numbers, as abstractions themselves.
As we commemorate, we must not only mourn the lives lost and the immeasurable suffering inflicted – also by individuals – but we must also reflect on the lives that were saved by individuals who refused to be bystanders. Nicholas Winton – who passed away last July at the age of 106 – was one of those individuals. As many of you know, he helped 669 children, most of them Jews, escape from Czechoslovakia in the run up to the Second World War. He bribed officials, he forged documents, he arranged transport through hostile territory, he persuaded families to take in foster children – anything to get kids out.
Members of the resistance did not stand by either, helping Jews like 10-year-old Haim Roet evade deportation to the camps. Haim and his three older brothers were smuggled out of Amsterdam’s Jewish ghetto and taken in – along with hundreds of other children – by families in the rural village of Nieuwland. Haim was brought late one night in 1943 to the home of Anton and Aleida Deesker who, without hesitation, brought the exhausted, frightened, and cold little boy into their warm bed, and hid him for the rest of the war. Think, for just one moment, about the quiet courage and humanity embodied in that simple act – in that simple reflex.
The acts of these brave individuals lead us, of course, to timeless questions: What if more people had acted as they did? What would each of us do if we found ourselves in similar circumstances?
I was struck by the question Ms. Wise posed earlier: Where was God during the Holocaust? “My question,” she said “ is where was man?”
We do not need to think in terms of hypotheticals. To look at the map today is to see countless places where individuals are enduring horrific atrocities – ones that, from a distance, can seem also abstract and immutable. But when you get up close, you see that the victims are individuals. And every day – as nations, as communities, and as individual human beings – we have countless chances to stand up for these people, in ways big and small. So we must constantly ask ourselves, are we playing the role of the upstanders? Are we opening the doors of our homes and our nations to people when they need it most? Are we standing up against anti-Semitism, as it surges in various quarters around the world?
If we needed any further evidence of the stakes, and of what our societies have to gain by stopping mass atrocities and fighting hate, we only need to look around this room – not only at the survivors and their legacies, but also at the generations that would not exist without them. We see this in the life of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who after being liberated from Bergen Belsen went on to found a chamber orchestra in England, and to have two children, one of whom is himself now a world renowned cellist. We see this in the life of Haim Roet, who – now in his eighties – continues to dedicate himself to serving his nation of Israel, particularly its marginalized communities, and to ensuring that no one forgets that unto every victim there is a name, there is a history, there is a story, there is a set of aspirations unrealized. Haim is here today, and his son, David is a proud representative of Israel at the United Nations. And David has carried on his father’s legacy through efforts such as, last year, helping to organize – in this very chamber, in this very General Assembly – the first-ever meeting on combating anti-Semitism held in the UN General Assembly. And we see it in the 669 children saved by Nicholas Winton, who now have some 6,000 descendants. Six thousand people – who otherwise would not enrich our world, but for the efforts, in large part, of one single individual.
In commemorating the Holocaust, we must do more than reflect on the singular horrors that too many failed to stop; or on all that our societies have to gain when we save the lives of the Haims and the Anitas of the world. We must also ask, where are those places right now? Nothing will be like the Holocaust, but there is contemporary atrocity and suffering of unimaginable scale that is within our power to do something about. And we must do more than just pay tribute to the Wintons and Deeskers who helped save lives – though we must do that – we must do our level best to take inspiration from them, make choices like the choices they made.
As Albert Camus – one of my favorite writers – put it, “Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” We have that chance, we should be better.