United Nations New York Holocaust Memorial Ceremonies

January 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the ending of World War II, and the establishment of the United Nations, with the aim of building a world that is just and peaceful. ICJW representatives Madeleine Brecher, Fran Butensky, Joan Lurie Goldberg and Judy Mintz represented attended several remembrance events at the United Nations in New York between Monday, 27 January 2020 to Thursday, 30 January 2020.

International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust in the General Assembly Hall

Master of Ceremonies:  Ms. Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications

In a filled hall, Melissa Fleming extended a very special welcome to Holocaust Survivors and WWII Veterans.  Six memorial candles were lit in honor of the Holocaust victims and Kaddish was recited at the beginning of the program. Ms. Fleming began with the observation that hatred today is being normalized and that education is the vaccine to this disease.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

Mr. Antonio Guterres set the tone for the commemoration event by declaring a recommitment to prevent any repetition of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime during the worst period of our history.

Today, we need solidarity more than ever because of the rise of anti-semitism world- wide.  Right here in the New York area, there is a 21% increase. There is a rise of 24% in France and 16% in the United Kingdom. The name of this phenomenon is glorification -Nazis spreading their online poison to young minds. We must be aware of the never-ending attacks against religious minorities. Hate that begins with Jews never ends with the Jews.  Our duty is to keep looking.  She is appalled to see that anti-semitism keeps repeating itself.  Anti-semitism thrives on insecurity. Combating prejudice begins with leadership on all levels.

H.E. Mr. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly

Mr. Muhammad-Bande opened his remarks by describing the Holocaust as the worst genocide in history and declaring that repeats must be avoided.  “75 years later, it is difficult to grasp a level of hatred which enabled the Holocaust.” 

In December, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  All these years later, we still have the obligation to fight against hatred and discrimination.

H.E. Christoph Heusgen, Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN

Ambassador Christoph Heusgen voiced his shame for Germany’s actions and the breakdown of civilization. He is appreciative that his country is being given this opportunity to remember the victims from those years.  He believes that the past must be understood but also warned that anti-Semitism is still part of the present and can be described as a cancer that has metastasized.  He believes that words are not enough and not to permit “never again” to become a hollow phrase.  Only with education of the young, including required visits to Auschwitz, will the past not repeat itself.

H.E. Mr. Danny Danon, Permanent Representative of Israel to the UN

Ambassador Danon reminded the audience that nations must ACT against the disease of Antisemitism; hollow words are not enough. To combat Antisemitism and punish perpetrators, every UN member state must immediately:

  • Draft legislation;
  • Set up adequate enforcement; and
  • Develop an awareness campaign.

Ambassador Danon has escorted over 100 UN Ambassadors to Poland and Israel to educate them on the remarkable achievements of his country. Today, he proclaimed, we have the State of Israel and the IDF to keep the Jewish people safe. The days when Jews were defenseless are over!

H.E. Mr. Vassily A. Nebenzia,Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN

Mr. Vassily Nebenzia declared that, prior to liberation of Auschwitz and other camps, nobody really knew the extent of the killing machine which was operating in Europe.  The Soviet Union fought very hard and lost many millions of people.  He credited the Red Army with the liberation of Auschwitz along with many other victories which helped bring the war to an end.    He believes that we must never forget who started the war and with whom they collaborated. 

He did not discuss the pact between Stalin and Hitler which, of course, ended with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.  He paid tribute to the heroism and bravery of the Red Army and also of the millions of civilian Russians who lived under siege during the years that the USSR fought against the Germans.

H.E. Ms. Cherith Norman-Chalet, Acting Deputy Permanent Representative of the US to the UN

Ms. Norman-Chalet opened her remarks with a welcome to the audience.  She declared that this day calls for education and remembrance of the Jewish sufferers and reminds us that “never again” is a vital and still very current goal.  “Never Again” demands that:

  • We remember and continue to tell the story of the Holocaust.
  • We remember and honor the lives destroyed by it.

No one must be allowed to distort the history of the Shoah or to deny it. It is especially important to keep informing youth – today many of our young people know nothing at all about the Shoah.  She cited other governments which, since 1945 and even today, have been destroying their minorities.  She mentioned Stalin, China and Burma among others.

We must never forget anti-Semitism and dehumanization and continue to fight for the dignity of all people.  “May we never forget all the victims of Nazi persecution”

Mr. Dan Pavel Doghi, Chief, Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues, Senior Adviser on Roma & Sinti Issues, Organization for Security & Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions & Human Rights

Mr. Doghi reminded us that the Nazis wanted to destroy all those they deemed racially impure by destroying them on racist grounds which included a ½ million Roma who were part of the “forgotten Holocaust”.  These victims must be recognized and included in history by having their stories respected and shared. Their suffering must be acknowledged and anti-Roma rhetoric ended.

Holocaust Survivors: Ms. Irene Shashar

Ms. Shashar was born in Poland in 1937.  Her family was forced into the Warsaw ghetto where the Nazis murdered her father. Determined to survive, her mother smuggled her out of the ghetto through the filthy sewers when she was just two years old and saved her life. How, she asked, did her mother know what to do? They were hidden for the remainder of the war and after the war, went to Paris where her mom died in 1948. As a 10 year old orphan, she went on to live with family in Peru. After receiving a scholarship to study in the United States, Ms. Shashar moved to Israel to teach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has two children and seven grandchildren and shares her time between Israel and Peru. This joyous woman reminded us that life is a gift. She proudly proclaimed, “Hitler did not win!”

Holocaust Survivors: Mr. Shraga Milstein

Born in Poland, Mr. Milstein was six years old and ready to start school when the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939. He and his family were deported to Buchenwald and that was the last time he saw his mother. One day, his dad found him in the camp to give him a hug; the very next day, his dad was killed at age 43. Ultimately, he was sent to Bergen Belsen where the British soldiers could not believe their eyes when they liberated the camp in 1945. That is when young Shraga’s world changed. He was moved to proper housing in a nearby Wehrmacht camp and shortly sent to Sweden to convalesce. He finally got to school at age 12. Today he lives in Israel and has three sons and nine grandchildren, all who appeared on the stage with him during his remarks. Two of his grandchildren were born on the same day his dad was shot at Buchenwald. Currently, Mr. Milstein serves as Chairman of the Organization of Bergen-Belsen Survivors in Israel. In 2006, he published his memoir, The Journey of Life. It was another riveting tale of survival.

Keynote Speaker : Judge Theodore Meron, Former President, UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals

Judge Theodor Meron is a Holocaust survivor who was born in Poland in 1930. Tzhe Judge is a former 3-term president of the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. He has dedicated his life to the study of law both in Israel and the United States. He lost many relatives in the ghettos and work camps and continues to mourn the millions of Russians, Poles and Roma who were killed during the Holocaust. He singled out Denmark for their rare example of humanism in saving countless Jewish lives.

He acknowledged that there were periods of light in that darkness, stories of bravery and righteousness as when a young German soldier came upon his parents but looked the other way and didn’t report them.  He shared a sense of humanity by enumerating several stories of heroes that will probably never be heard.

Anyone can become a perpetrator. We must make sure that genocides are never allowed to happen again. We believed too late because it was unthinkable that it could be true that people were actually being marched to death camps. Judge Meron has dedicated his life and belief to the criminal justice system.

Cantor Shulem Lemmer sang the prayers El Maleh Rachamim and Ani Ma’smin. Violinist Itzhak Perlman performed. Click here to watch Cantor Lemmer’s performance.

Exhibition “Seeing Auschwitz”

The pictures in this exhibition are vital evidence of the Nazis’ crimes.  The perpetrators took many and the viewers are asked to think about what they reveal about the photographers’ intentions.

Exhibition “Crimes Uncovered:  The 1st Generation of Holocaust Researchers”

This exhibition examines Jewish historians and academics of various nationalities and backgrounds who documented and safeguarded evidence of the actions taken against the Jewish people during the Holocaust.  They lobbied to draw attention to what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe.  They helped to shape the foundation of current knowledge.

Exhibition “Some Were Neighbors”

This exhibition in the UN Lobby, created by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for Holocaust Commemoration week, addresses one of the central questions of the Holocaust: How did it happen? It looks at the role of ordinary people and their motives and choices.  It considers individuals who did not give in to opportunities and temptations.

The Shoah was not just fueled by true Nazi believers; ordinary people responded… complaisant neighbors who acquiesced.  The exhibit also considers individuals who did not give in to the temptations to betray their fellow human beings, reminding us that there is an alternative to complicity in evil acts- even in extraordinary times. In Morocco, Muslim students held workshops on how to preserve their Jewish heritage. An Iranian diplomat in Paris saved Jewish lives. In Saudi Arabia, a large number of journalists went to Yad Vashem after the war to gather material to report on the holocaust. Fifty public libraries around the United States showed exhibits and taught new communities the facts about America’s role… what Americans did and did not know at the time. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is opening a contemporary history exhibition on the Rohinga genocide in August 2020. The UN created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its vision promises a world where human dignity is paramount. The distortion and denial of the Holocaust goes against everything the UN is supposed to represent. 

Civil Society Briefing: “Hate speech, Holocaust Denial and Distortion:  Why Challenging Matters”

ICJW Representatives:  Judy Mintz, Madeleine Brecher, Fran Butensky, and Joan Goldberg

Ms. Melissa Fleming, UN Under-Secretary General for Global Communications, moderated this session.  She introduced the briefing by calling on civil society to amplify its values and what we stand for as a reaction to Holocaust denial, distortion and hate speech.  She warned that Antisemitism remains strong and is growing.  On a positive note many students were in attendance.

Dr. Robert Rozett, Director of the Libraries at Yad Vashem

Dr. Rozett focused his remarks on the denials and distortions attributed to those responsible for the Holocaust.

  • The denial of the Germans, by burning bodies and destroying records before the liberation to get rid of evidence that it ever happened
  • Distortion, Communist countries portraying themselves as the victims while doing the murdering and blaming the Nazis for everything while they claimed it wasn’t us.
  • In Poland and other communist countries, strong push for national identity and to protect their national honor in effort to explain why it happened by creating new laws to protect their honor. This is a disingenuous way of saying it wasn’t us.
  • Individuals and families did save many lives at the
  • Risk of losing their own.
  • There are righteous, they did exist but it wasn’t in the mainstream society.
  • There was a difference in the Germans hating the Jews and communists’ feelings toward Jews.
  • Distortion is a way to deny that the Holocaust ever happened.

By working with the United Nations here and in Europe and with other like-minded organizations, we can ensure that we never forget and that the Holocaust did happen.

Mr. Tad Stahnke, International Outreach Division on Holocaust Denial & Antisemitism at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Holocaust memory is under assault. In the current climate, where countries are promoting “national identity”, political leaders in Eastern and Western Europe are rebranding their nations and distorting and denying the holocaust. Sadly, this is happening online where it is reaching a global audience… a young audience which has no direct experience with the Shoah. Surveys show that these youth do not even know that Antisemitism has to do with Jews. In addition, recent trends in migration and turmoil arising from national divisiveness are adding to the problem. We must challenge all of this distortion and denial! As UN Secretary-General Guterres said, “Never again” means teaching history again and again and again.”

Dr. Sara Brown, Executive Director of CHANGE, The Centre for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education

Since 1979 CHHANGE has been dedicated to a holistic approach in challenging hate speech and Holocaust denial by engaging students beginning in the fifth grade, educators and community stakeholders.  The organization promotes the elimination of racism, Antisemitism and all forms of prejudice.  In addition to Holocaust programs, the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia are also highlighted. Based in New Jersey (US) the organization uses educational tools and personal stories to create initiatives exposing “revised” history.  It encourages critical thinking and mobilizes law enforcement, activists, the clergy and policy makers. 

Simona Cruciani, Political Affairs Officer, Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, United Nations

In her talk she addressed UN concerns with denial and distortion as well as the global spread of dangerous hate speech.  What is the UN doing about it? The focus of her office (established by Kofi Annan in 2004 in response to the atrocities in Bosnia and Ruanda) is prevention.  Using a technique called “Framework for Analysis”, the office monitors incidents in order to get early warning of impending “atrocity crimes”.  At present there are many countries where serious hatred issues generate widespread hate speech – an example she provided is discrimination toward immigrants. 

Secretary Guterres is very concerned; he believes UN values are being affected by hate speech and has stated that we must not allow this hate to cancel memories of the Holocaust.  He has started a working group at the UN which developed a plan of action against hate speech in line with the declaration of Human Rights.  This  “Plan of Action for Religious Leaders and Actors to Prevent Incitement to Violence that could lead to Atrocity Crimes” is in place now and can be found at www.preventgenocide.un.org.

Ms. Cruciani’s department, with UNESCO, is organizing an international conference on dealing with hate speech through education.  The need for education is clear; for example, in Italy, the fraction of the population denying the Holocaust has grown from 2% of the population to 15% in 2019.

During the Q&A the question was asked “how to combat hate on social media”.  Some answers:

  • While these sites really can’t be stopped, it was suggested to “spread humanity” and post factual stories instead. 
  • We were reminded to be mindful, to think critically, to teach values. 
  • In addition, Holocaust education must be mandated and a “tool box” approach” developed. 
  • A new response is the inclusion of a “human rights directors” position in some social media companies. 

Book Signing  Renia’s Diary: A Holocaust Journal

This is a long-hidden diary of a young Polish girl during the Holocaust. It’s record of her daily life as the Nazis’ power spread throughout Europe.  She was forced to live in her city’s ghetto.  The diary ends in July 1942 when she was killed by the Gestapo.

Film Screening: “The Accountant of Auschwitz”

This film and briefing provided an historical overview of Holocaust denial and distortion and explored measures being taken to identify and counter denial and distortion and to challenge hate speech.