‘Confront Falsehoods with Facts, Ignorance with Education, Indifference with Engagement’, Says Secretary-General at Holocaust Remembrance Service
Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at a memorial service in honour of the victims of the Holocaust, at Park East Synagogue, in New York today:
“I should like someone to remember that there once lived a person named David Berger.” David himself wrote these words, at the time just 19 years old. He wrote them in 1941, in Vilna, in present-day Lithuania. It was his last letter.
We are together today to remember David and with him, the 6 million Jewish children, women and men, and million others who perished in the Shoah. We are together to mourn the loss of so many and so much. And we are together to pledge to never forget — nor let others ever forget.
It is an enormous privilege to finally be back in person with all of you in the wonderful Park East Synagogue. Shabbat Shalom.
And being in a synagogue, allow me once again to express my outrage and condemnation in relation to the vicious terrorist attack that claimed so many innocent victims outside another synagogue in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Schneier, thank you so much for again welcoming me in your home. Thank you for your lifelong engagement for human rights and dignity, religious freedom and respect, compassion and solidarity. I am deeply grateful to the ever-closer ties that bind us. The ties of personal friendship — and the ties of shared purpose with our United Nations.
For you — and for all survivors among this congregation and beyond — I have come here to say: We stand with you — grateful for your life’s work, and committed to keep your memory alive today and in the future.
The Holocaust did not happen as a “lesson” for humanity. But, it did happen. And because it happened, it may happen again. We must never let down our guard. We must be forever vigilant. Antisemitism has been described as the canary in the coal mine of freedom. Throughout millennia, the persecution of Jews was a mark of rotten societies.
My own country, Portugal, is no exception. At the turn of the sixteenth century, King Manuel I signed the Edict of Expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert. It was a cruel crime, and it was an act of colossal stupidity. Portugal, deprived of cultural dynamism, entered a period of prolonged stagnation and decline.
It is a source of great joy that descendants of expelled Jewish families have since exercised their right to regain Portuguese nationality. And it is a source of great honour that Lisbon will soon have a new museum dedicated to Portugal’s long and rich Jewish history — the Tikva Museum. A history that teaches us the value of cultural diversity, the dangers of intolerance and the dark trajectory of hate through the ages.
First, conversion: the hate that says “you have no right to live among us as Jews”. Then, expulsion: the hate that says “you have no right to live among us”. Until, lastly, annihilation: the hate that says, simply, “you have no right to live”.
The painful truth is: even today, antisemitism is everywhere. If anything, it is increasing in intensity. And the same is true for other forms of racism and hate: Anti-Muslim bigotry. Xenophobia. Homophobia. Misogyny. Neo-Nazi white supremacist movements today represent the number one internal insecurity threat in several countries — and the fastest growing.
Their venom is moving from the margins to the mainstream. Demonization of the other. Disdain for diversity. Denigration of democratic values. Disregard for human rights. These evils are not new to our time. What is new is their reach and their speed.
The racist bigot who in the past might have spread his vitriol as far as his dinner table, today has a microphone with global reach. The paranoid conspiracy theorist who in the past might have found a single acquaintance to confide in, today finds a like-minded community of millions online. The consequences are as troubling as they are dangerous.
Yesterday, at the General Assembly, I launched an appeal to stop the hate and set up guardrails. I called out social media platforms, technology companies and advertisers for their complicity in amplifying vicious lies for profit. I called for regulation to clarify responsibilities. And I called on all of us to stand up and stand firm against hate.
We must confront falsehoods with facts, ignorance with education, indifference with engagement. The fact is, we see examples of religious extremism and intolerance in all societies and among all faiths today. It is the duty of religious leaders everywhere to prevent instrumentalization of hatred and defuse extremism amidst their followers.
And Governments everywhere have a responsibility to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust. The United Nations — including through our Holocaust Outreach Programme — is at the forefront of this crucial work. As fewer and fewer can bear direct witness, we will have to find new ways to carry the torch of remembrance forward.
Within families and across generations. Within classrooms and across geographies. We must tell the stories of the persecuted. The mass murder of the Roma and Sinti. The torture and murder of other victims targeted by the Nazis: persons with disabilities. Germans of African descent. Homosexuals. Soviet prisoners of war. Political dissenters and countless others.
And above all, we must tell the stories of all the children, women and men who were systematically murdered and who together made up the rich and vibrant mosaic that was Jewish life in Europe. We must remember the Holocaust not as the history of 6 million deaths; but as 6million different stories of death.
We remember people like Janusz Korczak, the Polish doctor, educator and head of an orphanage in Warsaw. He refused offers to escape the Warsaw ghetto and stayed with the 200 children under his care — all the way to Treblinka, so they would not die alone.
We remember Friedl Dicker-Brandeis who taught art to children in the Theresienstadt Ghetto — encouraging them to paint or draw so that, if only for a moment, they might feel safe. In 1944, Friedl and her students were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Today, as we remember them and countless, nameless others, we also reflect on our responsibility: our responsibility to honour the memory of those who perished; to learn the truth of what happened, and to ensure that neither we, nor future generations, ever forget; to refuse impunity for perpetrators anywhere; to stand against those who deny, distort, relativize, revise or otherwise whitewash their own complicities or that of their fellow citizens; and our responsibility to intensify our efforts in prevention — to discredit prejudice, to resolve conflicts and settle disputes before they erupt. We must never forget that no place or time is ever immune to barbarism.
In his diaries, Victor Klemperer wrote: “Curious: At the very moment modern technology annuls all frontiers and distances […] the most extreme nationalism is raging.” He wrote these words in the 1930s. They have eerie resonance today.
Our response must be clear. We must strengthen our defences and reject those who seek to deny the past to reshape the future. We must pledge — not simply to remember — but to speak out and to stand up. To speak out wherever we witness hate and to stand up for human rights and the dignity of all — today and for all days to come.