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Sixty-one Years After Liberation of Auschwitz, U.N. Marks Holocaust

Sixty-one years to the day after the liberation of Auschwitz, the United Nations marked its first-ever Holocaust remembrance day, commemorating those lost in the genocide that was the impetus for the world body’s birth. The acknowledgment was long overdue, said those who attended last Friday’s ceremony in a packed General Assembly Hall.

“For us survivors, this commemoration under U.N. auspices is a muted triumph,” said Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “It is imperfect justice, for it took 60 years for the crimes committed during the Holocaust to be properly acknowledged by the United Nations.”

Even as speakers harkened back to Nazi atrocities of the last century, the ceremony’s relevance to the present day seemed to be a presence of its own in the large hall.

That’s because it came just a day after Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction, won a landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections — and just weeks after Iran’s president called for Israel’s destruction and sought to deny the Holocaust.

Meanwhile, an Islamic journalists group reportedly is preparing to host a conference on the Holocaust that a spokesman said will include “those who have spent years of their lives in the study of documents related to the Holocaust and have come to the conclusion that the history books in schools and universities do not correspond to the truth.”

“We sound an alarm, a call to arms, and a wake-up call to the world,” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, told last Friday’s audience of Holocaust survivors; Jewish, Israeli and other officials; and members of the general Jewish community. “A world in which a member state of this organization calls for wiping Israel off the face of the map. A world in which an extreme and evil regime denies the Holocaust while preparing the next one.”

In a Jan. 20 letter circulated to the General Assembly, a copy of which was obtained by JTA, Iran lays out its opposition to U.N. Holocaust commemoration, taking issue with the body’s recognition of the suffering of “a particular ethnicity or religion” and calling for the exploration of “different aspects of historical events without any arbitrary restrictions” — a clear nod to Holocaust denial.

“Regrettably, the Zionist regime has routinely attempted to exploit the sufferings of the Jewish people in the past as a cover for its crimes being perpetrated today against Palestinians in the occupied territories, including massacre, demolition of houses, properties and farmlands, as well as acts of state terrorism,” the letter states.

In a videotaped address to the memorial ceremony, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan did not refer to Iran by name, but took aim at comments like those of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Remembering is a necessary rebuke to those who say the Holocaust never happened or has been exaggerated,” Annan said. “Holocaust denial is the work of bigots. We must reject their false claims whenever, wherever and by whomever they are made.”

“Let us pledge ourselves to even greater efforts to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity,” he added.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which helped organize the event, echoed Annan’s call for action.

“It’s not just Ahmadinejad,” he told JTA following the ceremony. “Ahmadinejad has given public expression to what’s going on every day in the Arab and Muslim press.”

Last year, the General Assembly held a session for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The event marked the first time the body observed the new International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, which was mandated in an assembly resolution adopted in November 2005.

While last Friday’s event was emotional and successful, the vast majority of those attending were survivors and members of the Jewish community, not representatives from U.N. member states, an Israeli official noted.

However, the official did note the presence of European representatives, including ambassadors.

The ceremony included a performance by Boston’s Zamir Chorale of music by Holocaust victims, along with remarks from the president of the General Assembly, Jan Eliasson of Sweden; Gerda Weissmann Klein, whose story was told in the Academy Award-winning documentary “One Survivor Remembers” and who offered a moving recollection of her Holocaust experience; and Yehuda Bauer, an academic and adviser to Yad Vashem.

“To all those today who hesitate to act against anti-Semitic propaganda, the question must be posed: Have you not learned your lesson?” Bauer asked.

He went on to offer three additional commandments that he said should be added to the biblical decalogue: “Thou shalt never be a perpetrator; thou shalt never be a victim; and thou shalt never, but never, be a bystander.”

Several days of Holocaust-related events at the United Nations led up to last Friday’s ceremony, including a candlelight vigil, performance of a play and the display of several Holocaust memoirs and diaries. The books were published by the Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project, which so far has published seven of 900 manuscripts it has collected.

“The authentic memoirs of Holocaust survivors are the single most powerful antidote to the intellectually reprehensible efforts by the likes of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to dismiss the genocide of millions of European Jews as a ‘myth,’ ” said Menachem Rosensaft, chairman of the memoir project’s editorial board.

The books are available in the U.N. bookstore and on Amazon.com.

Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador, concluded his remarks from the podium by removing a kipah from his pocket, placing it on his head, and quoting the Book of Psalms, in Hebrew: “May God Give His People Strength,” he said. “May God Bless His People With Peace.”

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