• Remembering The Holocaust

    This is the text of a speech delivered by Bryan Gould in the Grand Hall, NZ Parliament Buildings, to mark the UN Day of Holocaust Remembrance on 27 January.

    Sixty five years after the defeat of the Nazi regime, we mark again today the United Nations Day of Holocaust Remembrance. The passage of time has inevitably reduced the numbers of Holocaust survivors. And, some may say, in a world that has sadly become enured to other atrocities – the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia – the Holocaust is gradually losing its power to shock.

    I beg to differ. The Holocaust must be and will be remembered because it is unique in the annals of man’s inhumanity to man.

    It is not just the scale and intensity of the savagery that was inflicted, though they were both unprecedented. There were so many other aspects of the Holocaust that demand that we should fully learn the lessons it should teach us.

    It was, first, a deliberate and planned expression of that most ancient and pervasive of all racial prejudices – anti-semitism. This was no careless paroxysm of sudden anger against a briefly vulnerable minority; it was the central and structured element of a hateful ideology that used anti-semitism as both an end in itself and as the means to unite a deluded people in the pursuit of other goals.

    Furthermore, this was state-directed savagery. This was not the work of a small group of criminals pursuing their goals while the state turned a blind eye. This was the state itself, directing and demanding that the crimes should be carried out in its name.

    Nor was this a case of the state suddenly being taken over by a gang of desperadoes, who then perverted the state’s powers to serve their own ends. This was the legitimate, elected government of one of the world’s most advanced nations. The German people, knowing what Hitler intended, nevertheless voted him into power. It was a government that remained in power for twelve years. And this in a country which had a strong claim to being at the heart of European culture and civilisation.

    No one could mistake what Hitler intended. His targets did not choose themselves by becoming criminals or outlaws. They did not hold up their hands by acting or conspiring as a group against the regime. They had, through their mere existence, been in Hitler’s sights from a long way back. They were targets because they shared one characteristic and one only – they were Jewish. Women, children, the elderly, the sick, all qualified so long as they met that one single criterion. That was all that was needed to destroy their homes, shatter their families, and send them to the gas chambers.

    What remains astonishing, even at this distance and even in a modern world that is sadly harder to shock, is the sheer indifference to human feeling and suffering that those responsible for the Holocaust demonstrated. It was the denial of humanity to the victims that made it possible for the perpetrators to do what they did.

    In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and as the horror of the Holocaust became fully apparent, there was a feeling that what had been revealed was a deep flaw in the German character – something specific to the country that had allowed Nazism to flourish. But gradually the understanding developed that, if it could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere.

    When the Allies convened after the war to set up the United Nations, they were determined to ensure that those lessons should be learned. New Zealand was one of those architects of the post-War world. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation was the first UN Agency to be set up.

    In 1946, when UNESCO’s Constitution came into force, New Zealand was the second country to step forward to sign it. We did so, in the aftermath of that tragic conflict and with the horror of the Holocaust fresh in our minds, so that the instinct for peace and for a common humanity should take hold in the minds of new generations. So, with other founder members, we signed up for a future built on the life of the mind and the heart and the spirit – on education, culture, the sciences, and the free exchange of information and ideas. We saw these as the building blocks for a world that would strive to avoid such dreadful events in the future. And that is why the National Commission for UNESCO, which I have the honour to chair, will gladly play its part in today’s ceremony to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day – to help ensure that we will never forget.

    Bryan Gould

    23 January 2010

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