Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

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On January 27, 3,000 guests, including Holocaust survivors and foreign dignitaries, gathered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1.1 million were killed (around 90 percent of them Jews), to mark the seventy years since its liberation. 

Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, was a teenager when he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and on Tuesday he said at the ceremony:

"How can I forget the smell of burning flesh that constantly filled the air?... Or the heartbreak of children torn from their mothers? Those shouts of terror will ring in my ears until I am laid to rest..."

The world looked at the horrors of the Holocaust that killed millions, including six million Jews, and promised "never again". Tragically that promise has been broken too many times, with modern day genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan among others. And yet harnessing the lessons of the Holocaust remains both relevant to stopping/preventing future genocides and essential in contemplating the uncomfortable realities, which are part of the drama of human history.

But 70 years later and many of the Holocaust's survivors and their perpetrators have died, and in the not too distant future there will be none left. That has made the work of documenting the Holocaust all the more important.

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg has been at the forefront of this process, documenting 53,000 testimonies of survivors for the Shoah Foundation. Spielberg told survivors in Krakow, "You'll survive as long as children can listen to your words, listen to what your eyes are saying, too, and carry your messages in their own futures and into all generations to come. That's our mission at the Shoah Foundation."

Spielberg also warned of the dangers of today's resurgent antisemitism:

"If you are a Jew today, in fact if you are any person who believes in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, you know that like many other groups we're once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance. Antisemites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crime - these people that want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity, and just as we talk about our personal histories and what makes us who we are, these people make their own points. Facebook pages, for instance, identifying Jews and their geographic locations with the intention to attack, and the growing effort to banish Jews from Europe. The most effective way we can combat this intolerance and honour those who survived and those who perished is to call on each other to do what the survivors have already done, to remember and to never forget. Taking on this task is an exceptional responsibility..."

Seventy years later and another important record of the Holocaust has resurfaced from the dust. In 1945, Alfred Hitchcock and his friend, filmmaker Sidney Bernstein,  were tasked with documenting the liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and other camps for a film to be titled "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey". However, production of the film was halted, and why this occurred is discussed in a new HBO film titled "Night Will Fall", which also shows graphic images from the original film. The British and American governments reportedly withdrew their support and consigned the unedited reels to the archives of London's Imperial War Museum, with no public explanation.

Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua writes in Haaretz:

"There was only one piece of available documentation about why the film was shelved, from the British Foreign Office in August 1945. That said, showing the film was not a good idea since [following the Nuremberg trials and the start of the Cold War], showing it in Germany ... was no longer useful. ‘Germany was in ruins, the Soviet Union was already a perceived enemy and the British wanted the Germans to pick themselves up and help restore normalcy to the country. Further humiliation was therefore no longer a good idea.'... A further complication was the British and American unwillingness to accommodate refugees seeking asylum in the United States and pre-state Israel."

Hitchcock's documentary provides crucial evidence, particularly in light of today's resurgent antisemitism and ongoing Holocaust denial.  A May 2014 report by Anti-Defamation League estimated that 26% of the world's people have antisemitic attitudes, with Western Europe at 24% and Eastern Europe at 34%.  According to the survey only 54% of those polled globally have ever heard of the Holocaust, and two out of three people surveyed have either never heard of the Holocaust, or did not believe the historical accounts to be accurate.

Last week the UN General Assembly, for the first time, convened an informal session dedicated to discussing global antisemitism. It came in the wake of the Paris shootings where 17 people were murdered, including four Jews at a kosher supermarket. The UN General Assembly issued a joint declaration that has been signed by more than 40 countries, urging all nations to "declare their categorical rejection of anti-Semitism," and strengthen laws to combat discrimination, and prosecute those responsible for antisemitic crimes.

Representatives of countries made statements at the General Assembly session including Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the UN, she said:

"... it would be a big mistake to think that this [antisemitism] is just a European problem. This is a global problem. It is a problem in the United States, despite our long and proud history of religious freedom and our thorough efforts to combat anti-Semitism. According to a 2012 report by our Federal Bureau of Investigation, nearly two-thirds of religious-driven hate crimes in the United States target Jews. Two-thirds.
While Jews in Europe may feel increasingly fearful or even threatened, we must not forget there are communities - and even entire countries - where attending a synagogue or Jewish school is impossible, because they do not exist. Or that there are entire nations where once-vibrant Jewish communities have been driven into exile by harassment, threats, and attacks. We cannot forget that, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, Holocaust denial is still commonplace and accusations of ‘blood libel' are routinely circulated in the press, including by official news services. Or that there are violent extremist groups who preach a radical form of Islam and believe they are doing God's work by killing Jews..".

Australian Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative Caitlin Wilson also made a statement that included:

"Australia is deeply concerned by the prevalence of anti-Semitism around the world, particularly in light of the despicable events in Paris a fortnight ago.  The international community must condemn it absolutely and work tirelessly to combat it.  We must be unified in combating religious intolerance whether it is directed at Christians, Muslims or people of other religions or faiths."

Sadly the UN special session was not well attended, which may also explain why in the current 2014-2015 session, the UN General Assembly has adopted 20 resolutions singling out Israel for criticism - and only 3 resolutions on the rest of the world combined. UN Watch noted:

"The three that do not concern Israel are: one on Syria, a regime that has murdered more than 200,000 of its own people, one on Iran, and one on North Korea. Not a single UNGA resolution this year (69th session) is expected to be adopted on gross and systematic abuses committed by China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Yemen, Zimbabwe, nor on dozens of other perpetrators of human rights violations."

The UN was actually established on the ashes of Holocaust and WWII, and yet the politicisation of the UN has led to it ignoring far too many human rights abuses.

On Sunday, BBC TV's "The Big Question" debated the topic "Should the Holocaust be laid to rest". The obvious answer is no. And despite the inflammatory title of the debate, and the views of the host and a historian Tom Lawson who implied that the Holocaust was not unique amongst genocides and that Jewish commemorations created a "hierarchy of victims", some interesting points were raised.

Mukesh Kapila, a professor of global health and humanitarian affairs at Manchester University and a Special Representative for the Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity, said that the Holocaust is unique and its lessons universal, but unfortunately it is generally commemorated only in the West and not in India, China or Africa. Kapila, who has worked in Sudan and Rwanda, added that each generation should learn the lessons of the Holocaust within their own context to make it relevant.

Another member of the audience also made a salient point, saying:

"I was raised as a Muslim, and I grew up in a culture where Jews were demonised, the Holocaust was completely denied, it was claimed that the Jews were exploiting this to gain power etc, to say that... everyone's educated... and it's acknowledged and it's not such a big deal is a complete nonsense. Because in huge portions of the Islamic/Muslim communities there are children who are growing up with a counter narrative that the Holocaust is a fabrication... it's Jewish propaganda. To say that it's been commemorated, it achieved its education is complete nonsense... there are huge groups that.. are... completely in denial and have antisemitic views."

This point was brushed over by the host but it is particularly important when we see antisemitic imagery and conspiracy theories proliferating in the Middle East, and spawning a new generation to hate - no doubt fuelling the actions of extremists around the world.

Sharyn Mittelman