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Statement by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights to the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust

Room VII, Palais des Nations
Tuesday 28 January 10h00

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Every year we gather to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.   For years the Nazis persecuted, rounded up and transported Jews, Roma , Sinti, homosexuals, political opponents, the mentally ill and others to death camps. Some were murdered immediately. Others were cruelly worked to death. Last year, I went to Auschwitz – and, even now, nothing prepares you for the searing reminder of the horrendous crimes that were committed there and in the other concentration camps. 

The Holocaust remains one of the paramount examples of humans’ ability to sink to unimaginable depths of cruel depravity, but in the middle of death and destruction, one can also find resistance to despair.   This is why I want to talk to you today about a boy, who – in the middle of inhumanity – embodied many of humanity’s most positive values. I want to tell you about Petr Ginz.

Petr was born in Prague in 1928, the same year Hitler spoke in Berlin’s Sportpalast, after the Government lifted a ban prohibiting him from public speaking in Prussia.

During the 1930s, while Hitler continues his political quest for absolute power, little Petr turns into a gifted and highly imaginative child. His father decides to send him to a school for talented children, where he can blossom.

In March 1939, the paths of the greatest murderer in history and Petr collide, as Nazi troops enter Prague.   Immediately, the Nazis place restrictions on the Jewish population, taking their livelihoods, their freedom and ultimately their lives.

While the world around him becomes a nightmarish place, Petr reads, draws and writes.

Over the following years, Jews, Roma, Sintis, homosexuals and others are enveloped in the gathering storm that is sweeping across Europe.   At the same time, Petr reinvents reality. Amidst all the fear and suffering, between the age of eight and fourteen, Petr writes four novels: From Prague to China; The Wizard from the Altay Mountains; Journey to the Centre of the Earth; and A Visit from Prehistory.

Through his writing and drawing Petr takes us on a journey into a world of wonder, creativity and imagination.

This year, our Commemoration has the theme “journeys”. And while this word, in connection with the Holocaust, conjures up grim images of train after train heading to the concentration camps, Petr shows us that in the middle of despair and destruction, the human mind is capable of imagining other journeys, full of beauty and inspiration.

But soon Petr is himself forced to embark on a different journey.

“Mancinka, don’t get frightened, I am being transported,” were the words his diary records him telling his mother.  “Mummy was immediately beside herself; she started crying, she didn’t know what to do.   I comforted her,” he adds.

He was transported to the transit camp of Terezin, 40 kilometers north of Prague.   Some 140,000 Jews passed through Terezin between 23 November 1941, when the first trains arrived from Prague, and its liberation in May 1945.

Despite being separated from his family, the terrible overcrowding, and the constant presence of disease and starvation in the camp, Petr never stopped writing and creating.   He continued to draw and paint, and in his imagination travelled to places, such as the moon, that were as far from the cruel reality of camp life as he could get.

His love for life, his easy laughter and resourceful stories provided solace for many of his fellow inmates. His stories eased their burden and provided a ray of humanity.    On many grim days it was Petr, a small Jewish boy from Prague, who provided a seed of hope to the desperate people incarcerated alongside him.

Around 30,000 people died in Terezin.  Another 88,000 were deported from Terezin to other concentration camps.  Only 150 of the 15,000 children who were in Terezin survived.

On 8 May 1945, when the Soviet army entered the camp, Petr’s parents, Otto and Eva Ginz, who had joined their son in Terezin, were liberated and returned home to Prague.

But their extraordinary, gifted, irrepressible son, who had been transported to Auschwitz several months earlier, was never to return.

About ten years later, Petr’s mother learned from someone who was transported to Auschwitz on the same train as Petr, that immediately upon arrival the prisoners were divided into groups.

Petr’s group was sent directly to the gas chamber.

Like millions of other victims, Petr has no grave.   No place that would allow us to rest for a moment in silent prayer.    But he will never be forgotten.   It was this little boy, who taught us – these are his own words – that “the seed of a creative idea does not die in the mud and scum.   Even there it will germinate and spread its blossom like a star shining in darkness.”

It is to honor Petr, and all others who were murdered during the Holocaust, that we gather here today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Holocaust serves as a reminder of the perils of discrimination and intolerance. It warns us just how powerful and deadly the advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence can be.    It highlights the importance of intervening early to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.   In remembering the Holocaust and condemning the atrocities committed, we renew every year our condemnation of all manifestations of discrimination, hostility or violence against individuals and entire communities, wherever they occur.

In the decades since the end of World War II, and the discovery of the full horror of the Holocaust, the flames of hatred and persecution have risen again to consume other countries, people and societies – from the killing fields of Cambodia, to the forests of Srebrenica and the hills of Rwanda.   As a judge at the International Tribunal of Rwanda and the ICC, I listened to the harrowing testimonies of men and women who miraculously survived the senseless killing.   I learned all too clearly how we must stay constantly vigilant if genocide is to become an act that is consigned to history, and is finally to be eliminated from our present or future.

Even today, the fires smoulder on.   In many places around the world people are persecuted or discriminated against because of their ethnicity, religion, origin, sexual orientation or political beliefs, and people are still being maimed and slaughtered because of the group to which they belong.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honored to open this Panel and to sit among eminent speakers who will share with us their wisdom and conclusions on discrimination and how to prevent it.   I welcome Professor Dan Michman, Mr. Mario Silva and Ms. Karolina Mirga.

To conclude, let me stress that the world must never forget, deny or downplay the Holocaust.   We must remain on our guard.   And we must do more, far more, to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in our world today, as the fulfilment of human rights is the cornerstone of prevention of future human rights violations.

For Petr Ginz, and the countless other victims like him, let us affirm that not only will we never forget, but that we will also act to fight intolerance, political oppression and injustice whenever and wherever we can.   Remembrance alone is not nearly enough.

For our shared future, let us embrace our common duty as members of the human family to build a world of peace, justice, equality and human rights for all.

Before we proceed with our panelists, I would like to ask you to join me now in a minute of silence for Petr and all the millions of victims of the Holocaust.

[Minute of Silence]

Thank you