28 January 2019
Colleagues and friends,
On this day in 1945, the largest Nazi extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated. Some 7,500 people were freed that day; thousands more had been forced to march across the freezing landscape, and over the preceding three years, it is estimated that more than 1.1 million people – nine out of ten of them Jews – had been killed.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the first Nazi extermination camp to be established in Poland, and the largest; those who were not killed in the gas chambers had perished because of forced labour, starvation, disease and supposedly "medical" experiments.
Alongside millions of Jews, the victims of the Nazi camps included hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people, people with disabilities, homosexuals, prisoners of war, political dissidents and members of Resistance networks from all over occupied Europe.
Humanity could never be the same after this frightful crime – perpetrated on such a massive scale, and planned so systematically. Countless people participated, actively or through indifference, as women, men and children were humiliated, rejected, rounded up, transported to places of horror and killed.
On this International Day of commemoration, we express our respect and sorrow to the victims of this terrible crime.
This annual event also calls us to reflect on the present day, and on our future. It calls us to strengthen our resolve to confront the facts of the Holocaust, and to dismantle its legacy – through education, memorialisation and defiance – giving meaning to the phrase “never again.”
We are witnessing a sharp increase in many forms of hatred today, including the poison of anti-Semitism and other attacks on minority communities. They include physical assault and harassment of children and adults, as well as broad campaigns of vilification against members of racial and ethnic minorities, and migrants – in some cases, with the active backing of national leaders.
We also see continuing efforts to minimise or deny the events of the Holocaust, and the participation of its accomplices in perpetrating these crimes.
We must stand together against this normalization of hatred. We must push back against this slowly rising tide of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other attempts to deprive specific categories of people of their humanity and rights.
Remember: the Holocaust did not just happen all of a sudden. It was the culmination of many years – indeed centuries – of discrimination, injustice and vile propaganda. As the social media accounts of the Auschwitz Memorial recently noted: “When we look at Auschwitz, we see the end of the process. It's important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes and prejudice – through legal exclusion, dehumanisation and escalating violence.”
Today, too, we are seeing legal exclusion, dehumanisation, hateful propaganda and escalating violence against some communities.
It is time to wake up to the lessons of the 20th century. In the face of attempts to dehumanise and demonise communities, we must stand up to defend human rights.
As we mourn and honour the victims of the Holocaust, we must also push back against today's forms of hatred, and resist those who seek personal and political advantage from their attempts to revive the evils of the past. We must counter the hostility and scapegoating, which are increasingly anchored in the political landscape – and which can never be justified. They fuel violence; they hurt and humiliate people; and they harm society, destroying our sense of a common community engaged together in seeking out solutions for the greater well-being of us all.
Only by defending human rights, and by demanding that leaders act to end discrimination, can we truly ensure that persecution and genocide will not happen again.