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May 1, 2016 7:13 am

The Holocaust and Human Rights: Lessons Learned and Actions to Be Taken

avatar by Irwin Cotler

The gates of Auschwitz. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The gates of Auschwitz. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I write at a historic moment of remembrance and reminder, of witness and warning.

We are on the eve of two historic anniversaries: the 80th anniversary of the implementation of the Nuremberg Race Laws, which served as prologue and precursor to the Holocaust; and the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, which served as the foundation for the development of contemporary international human rights and humanitarian law.

This historic juncture of the double entendre of Nuremberg — the Nuremberg of jackboots and the Nuremberg of judgements — will be the theme of an international legal symposium on May 3 at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. It will be followed the next day by the March of the Living, when some 10,000 young people and survivors will march in remembrance, and in solidarity, from the gates of Auschwitz to Birkenau.

And so, we must ask ourselves two questions: What have we learned? What must we do?

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Lesson One: The Danger of Forgetting — The Responsibility of Remembrance

The first lesson is the importance of zachor — of remembrance of the victims defamed, demonized, and dehumanized as prologue and justification for genocide, and where the mass murder of six million Jews, and of millions of non-Jews, is not a matter of abstract statistics.

As one says at such moments of remembrance, “Unto each person there is a name, each person has an identity, each person is a universe,” recalling that “whoever saves a single life it is as if he or she has saved an entire universe.” And so, the abiding imperative which we must imbibe and act upon is: We are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.

Lesson Two: The Danger of State-Sanctioned Incitement to Hate and Genocide — The Responsibility to Prevent

The second enduring lesson is that the Holocaust succeeded not only because of the industry of death — of which the crematoria are a cruel reminder — but because of the Nazis’ state-sanctioned ideology of hate. It is this teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other, where it all begins. As the Canadian Supreme Court affirmed, “The Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.” Indeed, it is this genocidal incitement — as the Supreme Court of Canada again affirmed in the Mugesera case — that constitutes a crime in and of itself, whether or not genocidal acts follow.  

Lesson Three: The Danger of Old/New Antisemitism — The Responsibility to Combat

The third lesson is the danger of antisemitism, the oldest and most enduring of hatreds and the most lethal. If the Holocaust is a metaphor for radical evil, antisemitism is a metaphor for radical hatred.

From 1941 to 1944, 1.3 million people were murdered at Auschwitz — of whom 1.1 million were Jews, recalling Elie Wiesel’s dictum that “the Holocaust was a war against the Jews in which not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.”

Let there be no mistake about it: Jews died at Auschwitz because of antisemitism, but antisemitism did not die there. As we have learned only too tragically, while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews.

Lesson Four: The Danger of Holocaust Denial — The Responsibility to Repudiate False Witness

The Holocaust denial movement — the cutting edge of antisemitism old and new, is not just an assault on Jewish memory in its accusation that the Holocaust is a hoax and that the Jews fabricated this hoax; rather, it constitutes an international criminal conspiracy to cover up the worst crimes in history. Simply put, the Holocaust denial movement whitewashes the crimes of the Nazis, as it excoriates the “crimes” of the Jews. And now, in an inversion of the Holocaust, Israel is labelled as a genocidal state, and the Jews are the new Nazis.

Lesson Five: The Danger of Indifference and Inaction in the Face of Mass Atrocity — The Responsibility to Protect

The fifth painful and poignant lesson is that these Holocaust crimes resulted not only from state-sanctioned incitement to hatred and genocide, but from crimes of indifference, from conspiracies of silence — with the international community as bystander. What makes the Holocaust, and more recently the Rwandan Genocide, so unspeakable, is not only the horror of the genocide itself — which is horrific enough — but that these genocides were preventable.

Let there be no mistake about it: Indifference and inaction always means coming down on the side of the victimizer, never on the side of the victim. In the face of evil, indifference is acquiescence, if not complicity in evil itself.

Lesson Six: The Danger of Impunity — The Responsibility to Bring War Criminals to Justice

If the last century — symbolized by the Holocaust — was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators — including in the Nuremberg Trials — were brought to justice. Just as there must be no sanctuary for hate and no refuge for bigotry, there must be no base or sanctuary for these enemies of humankind. Impunity only emboldens and encourages the war criminals and war crimes.

Lesson Seven: The Danger of La trahison des clercs — The Betrayal of the Elites: The Responsibility to Speak Truth to Power

The seventh lesson is that the Holocaust was made possible not only because of the “bureaucratization of genocide,” as Robert Lifton put it — and as the Nazi desk murderer Adolf Eichmann personified it — but because of the trahison des clercs, the complicity of the elites, including physicians, church leaders, judges, lawyers, engineers, architects, and educators.

Nuremberg crimes were also the crimes of the Nuremberg elites. It is our responsibility, then, to speak truth to power, to hold power accountable to truth. The double entendre of Nuremberg — of Nuremberg racism and the Nuremberg Principles — must be part of our learning as it is part of our legacy.

Lesson Eight: The Danger of the Assault on the Vulnerable and Powerless — The Responsibility To Intervene

The eighth lesson concerns the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable. Indeed, it is revealing, as Prof. Henry Friedlander pointed out in his work titled, “The Origins of Nazi Genocide,” that the first group targeted for killing were the Jewish disabled.

It is our responsibility, to give voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless, be they the disabled, poor, elderly, women victimized by violence, or vulnerable children — the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Lesson Nine: The Danger of the Bystander Community – The Responsibility of Rescue

The ninth lesson is the remembrance and tribute that must be paid to the rescuers, the Righteous Among the Nations, of whom Raoul Wallenberg is metaphor and message, who demonstrated that one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can confront evil, resist, and transform history. Tragically, the man who saved so many was not himself saved by so many who could have done so. We have a responsibility to help discover the fate of this great hero of the Holocaust, whom the United Nations called the greatest humanitarian of the twentieth century. An International Scholars Roundtable, in May 2016, will attempt to do precisely that.

Lesson Ten: The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors

We must always remember — and celebrate — the survivors of the Holocaust, the true heroes of humanity. For they witnessed and endured the worst of inhumanity, but somehow found, in the depths of their own humanity, the courage to go on, to rebuild their lives as they helped build our communities.

Together with them, we must remember — and pledge — that never again will we be indifferent to incitement and hate; never again will we be silent in the face of evil; never again will we indulge racism and antisemitism; never again will we ignore the plight of the vulnerable; and never again will we be indifferent in the face of mass atrocity and impunity.

We will speak up — and act — against racism, against hate, against antisemitism, against mass atrocity, against injustice, and against the crime of crimes whose name we should shudder to mention: genocide.

Irwin Cotler is Professor of Law (Emeritus) at McGill University and Founding Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. A former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada and long time Member of Parliament, he is Co-Chair with Professor Alan Dershowitz, of the forthcoming international legal symposium: “The Double Entendre of Nuremberg: The Nuremberg of Hate and the Nuremberg of Justice.”

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