International Holocaust Memorial Day
Glen Eira Town Hall
27 January 2011
We gather here, on International Holocaust Memorial Day, to mourn the millions of people who lost their lives in the Holocaust, to honour those who survived, and to celebrate those who rescued them. We gather to bear witness and to remember. I want to speak on these last matters, of bearing witness and remembering.
This day, 27 January, is the day on which in 1945 the advancing Soviet army entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The Soviets found 7 000 prisoners, many ill or dying. In the days before, the Nazi SS had removed nearly 60 000 prisoners from the camp, to trudge off on the infamous death marches in which many thousands lost their lives.
The German people have borne witness and remember this day. 27 January is the international day of commemoration in part because Germany declared it in 1996 as the "Day of Remembrance for the victims of National Socialism". The Germans pushed for international recognition of this day, and it was so designated in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly. The Germans have continued to remember. Their president, Horst Koehler, spoke on 27 January 2009, of the need to reject those who deny the Holocaust, saying, "The responsibility for the Shoah remains part and parcel of German history".
Last year, the President of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, addressed the Bundestag, to help the German people, and the world, bear witness. In a speech in which he called on Germany to bring to justice those still living men and women who took part in perpetrating the Holocaust, Shimon Peres started by reciting the ancient prayer in Aramaic which Jews throughout the world recite in mourning the dead, the Mourner's Kaddish. Shimon Peres finished his speech to the German Parliament with the words of the Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel.
It is significant that the German people bear witness and remember, because it was their national government which carried out the Holocaust. This was the government of a people who saw themselves as the most civilized people of their time. It was a government with an efficient bureaucracy, a government of a modern and technologically advanced nation. It was also a government with a plan for the total destruction of all Jews, which was prepared to deploy its efficient bureaucracy and technological resources in carrying out that plan.
The American people also have understood the importance of bearing witness to the Holocaust. The Soviets came from the east to Auschwitz. The first camp reached by the advancing American army in 1945, coming from the west, was Buchenwald. The American troops found scenes of mass death and horror, starving survivors and dead bodies in grotesque piles. General Eisenhower ordered Germans from nearby towns to tour the camp, to see the horrors perpetrated by their nation. He ordered American soldiers to visit the camp. He invited journalists and congressmen to visit the camp, and he ordered that films and photographs be taken. Those films and photographs are part of the record. We see some of them at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Many here will have seen those photos and films. They help us remember, and Eisenhower was right when he said that he " ...wanted to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things, if ever in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda".
The Germans bear witness to this day. The Americans bear witness to this day. Many other nations bear witness. And I bear witness by speaking to you tonight of my German great-grandparents who perished in the Holocaust.
My father has a photograph of Albert Ransenberg, my great grandfather, taken in the yard of the railway station in Wiesbaden on 1 September 1942. It is part of a series of photographs taken secretly by a local policeman, showing Jews from Wiesbaden being deported to the east. My father found this photo in 1983, on a visit to Germany looking for family history. Again, and in his own way, to bear witness. The photograph shocks us because we know the fate of the group of well dressed middle class Jews shown standing in the railway yard. They are mostly elderly and they are already gaunt from the food rationing imposed by then on Jews. Albert Ransenberg died in Theresienstadt. The journey of his wife, my great grandmother Ida Ransenberg, was a little longer. The Nazis killed her in Auschwitz.
My other German great grandmother, Paula Dreyfus, was living in Wuppertal, my father's birthplace, in 1942. My father has written this about her death:
"When Hitler came to power in 1933, there were some 3 200 Jews in Wuppertal, including my grandmother Paula Dreyfus, a grand and dignified lady. By 1939 most had left..... In mid-July 1942 Paula was notified by mail to prepare to leave her lovely house in the Kirschbaumstrasse. She took poison on the night of July 18, just four days before the last transport left for Theresienstadt. Perhaps she knew..."
In 2011, on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, I bear witness to the deaths of my German great grandparents and I bear witness to the deaths of all of the millions of victims of the Holocaust. I invite all of you here to bear witness to the horror of the Holocaust. And on the day after Australia Day, when we have celebrated our achievements as a nation, and affirmed together the rights and privileges we enjoy, I would ask for our nation to bear witness to the Holocaust and to remember those who the Nazis deprived of all such rights and privileges.
Why must we bear witness? Why must we remember? We must bear witness and remember because first, the generation who lived through the Holocaust, many of whom settled in Melbourne, grow smaller in number every year. Most of those with direct memory and direct experience are no longer with us and this requires us to learn as much as we can from our parents, our grandparents and those few Holocaust survivors who remain. It requires us to record, to report, to interpret, to bear witness and above all to remember the terrible events of the middle of the 20th Century. As Elie Wiesel said on a visit to Buchenwald with Barack Obama in 2009, "Memory has become the sacred duty of all people of good will".
We must bear witness and remember the Holocaust for other, equally important reasons. Bearing witness and remembering enable us to identify and resist the anti-Semitism and its fellow traveller, Holocaust denial, which are on the rise across the world, particularly in parts of Europe and the Arab world.
Parliamentary representatives from 50 countries (including our Australian representatives Michael Danby MP and Senator Scott Ryan) confirmed this at the second conference of the Interparliamentary Coalition for Combating Anti-Semitism in Ottawa in November 2010. To quote from the Protocol agreed by the conference, "There continues to be a dramatic increase in recorded anti-Semitic hate crimes and attacks targeting Jewish persons and property and Jewish religious, educational and communal institutions".
The same protocol also expressed alarm about, ‘Ongoing state sanctioned genocidal anti-Semitism and related extremist ideologies". The parliamentarians were thus referring not only to Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism on the lunatic fringe of society, but also to national governments which are engaging in Holocaust denial and the promotion of genocide. The current government of Iran is chief among these governments. Iran's President Ahmadinejad calls for the killing of Jews and the destruction of Israel and refers to the Holocaust as a ‘myth'. He has hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers in Tehran, and actively encourages hatred of Jews and Holocaust denial throughout the world.
But there is strong international resistance to hatred and denial, not just from the individual parliamentarians who gathered in Ottawa last year and in London the year before but also from many governments. Canada, Israel, Italy, the US, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and Australia withdrew from the UN's Durban Review Conference in 2009, in protest against the anti-Semitic and anti Israel direction of the conference. Many more national delegates walked out in protest at the speech delivered on the first day of the conference by Iran's president. This adherence to truth demonstrates the value of bearing witness and remembering.
George Orwell, in an essay written in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany, referred to ‘...the organised lying of totalitarian states'.
This is an apt description of the rantings of the President of Iran and national leaders like him. Hamas in Gaza practise the same "organised lying". In the same essay Orwell also observed that, "Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth".
We need to hold on to that understanding of totalitarianism. Bearing witness to and remembering the Holocaust helps us to do this. We can keep up the fight against "the organised lying of totalitarian states", and reject the alteration of the past, by speaking and respeaking, and respeaking, the objective truth about the Holocaust.
It is only by bearing witness and remembering that we can make sure that when we say ‘never again', we know what we are speaking of. Bearing witness and remembering help us to identify the actions of individuals and the conduct of nations in our own time, as the actions and the conduct we must fight against.
In Australia we have done much to remember the Holocaust. The Holocaust Centres in Melbourne and Sydney do excellent work. Some Australian universities teach and conduct research about the Holocaust. Jewish organisations in Australia commemorate this International Day and also commemorate Yom Hashoah. Recently our Commonwealth Government has ensured that study of the Holocaust is incorporated in the national secondary school history curriculum.
But we could do more. I think Australia could formally recognise a Day of Remembrance as many countries have already done. And in my view Australia should join the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. Most of Europe, Britain, the US, Israel and Canada are members, and we could be too.
Australia should do more to remember the Holocaust because we are a nation which rejects discrimination and racism in all forms. Our ideals and aspirations commit us to fighting against oppression, to preventing genocide, to providing refuge to people in need. We committed to these aims in founding the United Nations, in joining the Refugee Convention and the Genocide Convention in the years immediately after the Holocaust. We would further those commitments by doing more to remember the Holocaust. We do further those commitments, on this International Holocaust Memorial Day, by saying, together, "Never again".