Jan. 26, 2005
UN transformed into Shoah memorial


Walking this week through the halls of the United Nations, one could be forgiven for thinking that it has been appropriated by a Holocaust museum.

A photographic exhibition sponsored by Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum stands at the main entrance to the UN building. A few hundred meters away, a poster hanging near where the guided tours begin has a floor-to-ceiling photograph of Auschwitz capped by the slogan: "Afterwards, it's just part of you: Visits by young people to Auschwitz-Birkenau." And on Tuesday morning, in one of the UN's basement lecture halls, the US mission to the UN held a panel discussion on "Why We Remember," hosted by Holocaust historians, a German consular official and a US army veteran who was stationed outside of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945.

It was all part of a week's worth of events in the wake of Monday's monumental UN General Assembly special session marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.

This year, it seems, Holocaust Remembrance Week has come a few months early.

From the headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League in New York to a service attended by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in Berlin to a protest by a Bronx-area rabbi at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, survivors, public officials and ordinary citizens alike struggled to find ways of commemorating appropriately the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.

"How do you convey the human dimensions of the incomprehensible murder of millions of people?" asked Ruth Mandel, an official from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and director of an institute on politics at New Jersey's Rutgers University. Mandel spoke at the "Why We Remember" panel discussion.

That's a question ADL national director Abraham Foxman said he thinks about every day, particularly as calls of "Enough already," sometimes drown out the vow of "Never Again."

"I think all of us would like to move beyond, would like to feel that it's over. And yet it's there. It doesn't go away," Foxman said at an ADL ceremony marking the death camps' liberation. Foxman is a child survivor of the Holocaust.

He noted the recent discovery of a Vatican memo from 1946 indicating that Pope Pius XII instructed Catholic Church officials not to return some Jewish children to their families after the Holocaust and this month's incident in Britain when Prince Harry showed up to a costume party in a Nazi uniform. The real problem, however, is that Jews today who seek to defend themselves still must fight for the legitimacy of that enterprise-particularly at the UN, Foxman said.

"The UN is always willing to defend dead Jews but not give live Jews a chance to defend themselves," he said. "Here's an institution that in 1947 gave Israel its birthright and for the last 50-odd years has been trying to take that away."

For the most part, however, Jewish officials and survivors praised the UN's special session Monday, which included speeches by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and officials from Germany, Poland, the United States, the European Union and elsewhere.

Many survivors who came said they found the session poignant and moving even if, they said, it took the UN 60 years to hold its commemoration.

Werner Schmidt, an official at Germany's consulate in New York, said at the "Why We Remember" discussion that it took Germans, too, decades to begin talking about the Holocaust.

But time is a luxury the UN does not have when it comes to present-day genocidal campaigns, as Wiesel noted Monday at the UN General Assembly and others noted Tuesday at various events around New York.

"Why do we tell these stories? What do we hope to accomplish?" Mandel asked. To deny the Nazis a posthumous victory and to prevent future genocide, she said. By the latter measure, she suggested, the world already had failed.

"We do not need to look far in this world to see that these lessons have not been learned," Mandel noted, citing the violent campaign against black Africans in the Darfur region of Sudan as a place where genocide may today be taking place.

Ann Kirschner, child of a Holocaust survivor and a US army officer who helped liberate the Nazi concentration camps, said at the ADL's ceremony that stories from the Holocaust need to be told continually to try to make the incomprehensible real and to relate the lessons of the Nazi horror to today.

"History is about storytelling," Kirschner said. "We need history to have a human face before we fully engage."