On Monday, my wife Jeanie and I were in the United Nations General Assembly Hall together with Rabbi Kenneth Stern and Vivian Bernstein to take part in the second Universal Commemoration in Memory of Holocaust Victims.
Vivian is co-chief of the Group Programmes Unit of the U.N.’s Department of Public Information. Ken is our rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
The four of us are also children of Holocaust survivors. My parents, Vivian’s mother and Ken’s mother all were inmates of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. Jeanie’s father was a partisan in the forests of Belarus, and her mother was a hidden child.
As we stood there, the four of us were fully aware of our somber responsibility. My parents and Vivian’s and Ken’s mothers are no longer alive. We were there because of them and for them.
We were there to ensure that their horrendous experiences, the brutal mass murder of their families, our families and the attempted annihilation of European Jewry as a whole would become permanently engraved in the annals of humankind. We were there to represent them in the preservation and protection of memory. We were there because the ranks of the survivors are steadily dwindling, and because soon their voices will no longer be heard.
Anti-Semites of all types are becoming increasingly emboldened in their ongoing desecration of the memory of the Holocaust. Less than two months ago, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and other Holocaust deniers got together in Tehran for an international conference on what was disingenuously called “Review of the Holocaust: Global Vision.”
Last week, the U.N. General Assembly deemed it necessary to adopt a resolution urging “all member states unreservedly to reject any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end.”
The threat posed by Holocaust deniers has frequently been underestimated. As recently as 2001, the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, while acknowledging Holocaust deniers to be “ignorant and evil,” called them “irrelevant and, therefore, relatively harmless.”
It took Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to awaken the international community. When the head of a country with nuclear ambitions combined his repeated calls for the destruction of Israel with public references to the Holocaust as a “myth,” people began to pay attention. When he convened Holocaust deniers from across the globe to a government-sponsored pseudo-academic conference, the danger represented by this assemblage of sociopaths became self-evident.
Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism in one of its most virulent forms. It seeks to deprive our murdered family members of their very existence as a means to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
In his historic address to the U.N. General Assembly on Jan. 27, 2005, my teacher and mentor Elie Wiesel declared that what the enemy of the Jewish people sought to accomplish in the Shoah “was to put an end to Jewish history. What he wanted was a new world implacably, irrevocably devoid of Jews.”
It’s true that even though the State of Israel was created by the United Nations in large part as a consequence of and in response to the Holocaust, the Jewish people and the Jewish state have had an often rocky, sometimes deeply troubling relationship with the world body. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the 1975 General Assembly Resolution that denigrated Zionism as a form of racism was adopted while the organization’s secretary-general was Kurt Waldheim, who subsequently was exposed as a Nazi and a liar.
Beginning in 1991, the United Nations gradually has reclaimed its role as a legitimate bastion against genocide. That year, the noxious “Zionism is racism” resolution was rescinded by an overwhelming majority.
In 2004, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged that “our organization came into being when the world had just learned the full horror of the concentration and extermination camps. It is therefore rightly said that the United Nations emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust. And a human-rights agenda that fails to address anti-Semitism denies its own history.”
In 2005, the General Assembly proclaimed Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, as an annual International Day of Commemoration to honor the victims of the Holocaust. Thus there is every reason to believe that the General Assembly’s condemnation of Holocaust denial was sincere, and that the United Nations may be an important ally in our ongoing war against the mortal enemies of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
We may not, however, allow ourselves to become complacent. We cannot rely on others to preserve and protect the remembrance of our murdered families. After all, it took many years for even the Jewish community to begin to appreciate the significance of the Holocaust in Jewish history. And we hear too many disturbing murmurs from certain rabbis and academicians that the Holocaust is being overemphasized in Jewish education.
My father, the fiery leader of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, was once described by historian Lucy Dawidowicz as “our Ancient Mariner, who passes, ‘like night, from land to land,’ with ‘strange powers of speech’ to tell his tale to whomsoever will listen.” Because the survivors’ memories are their legacy not only to us but to the world, we, their children and grandchildren, must and will assume our parents’ and grandparents’ role as the principal guardians of Holocaust remembrance.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a lawyer, is founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.