Irwin Cotler: The lessons of the Holocaust remain sadly relevant today

Good piece, connecting the Holocaust to other genocides, war crimes and human rights violations, both historic and contemporary:

This year’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day was a particularly poignant historical moment of remembrance and reminder, of bearing witness, of learning and acting upon the universal lessons of history and the Holocaust.

I write in the aftermath of the 90th anniversary of the establishment in 1933 by Nazi Germany of the infamous Dachau concentration camp — where thousands were deported to during Kristallnacht — reminding us that antisemitism is toxic to democracy, an assault on our common humanity, and as we’ve learned only too painfully and too well, while it begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews.

I write also in the aftermath of the 81st anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, convened by the Nazi leadership to address “The final solution to the Jewish question” — the blueprint for the annihilation of European Jewry — which was met with indifference and inaction by the international community.

I write also on the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the most heroic Jewish and civilian uprising during the Holocaust, which was preceded by the deportation of 300,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. There is a straight line between Wannsee and Warsaw; between the indifference of one and the courage of the other.

I write also amidst the international drumbeat of evil, reflected and represented in the unprovoked and criminal Russian invasion of Ukraine, underpinned by war crimes, crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide; the increasing assaults by China on the rules-based international order, including mass atrocities targeting the Uyghurs; the Iranian regime’s brutal and massive repression of the “women, life, freedom” protests; the mass atrocities targeting the Rohingya, Afghans and Ethiopians; and the increasing imprisonment of human rights defenders like Russian patriot and human rights hero Vladimir Kara-Murza — the embodiment of the struggle for freedom and a critic of the invasion of Ukraine — sentenced this week to 25 years in prison for telling the truth, a re-enactment of the Stalinist dictum of “give us the person and we will find the crime.”

And I write amidst an unprecedented global resurgence of antisemitic acts, incitement, and terror — of antisemitism as the oldest, longest, most enduring, and most dangerous of hatreds, a virus that mutates and metastasizes over time, but which is grounded in one foundational, historical, generic, conspiratorial trope: namely, that Jews, the Jewish people, and Israel are the enemy of all that is good and the embodiment of all that is evil.

And so at this important historical juncture, we should ask ourselves what we have learned over the past 80 years and what lessons we must act on, including the following:

• The danger of forgetting the Holocaust and the imperative of remembrance — as Nobel laureate Prof. Elie Wiesel put it, “a war against the Jews in which not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were targeted victims” — of horrors too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened.

• The demonization and dehumanization of the Jew as prologue and justification for their mass murder.

• The mass murder of six million Jews — 1.5 million of whom were children — and of millions of non-Jews, remembering them not as abstract statistics, but as individuals who each had a name.

• The danger of antisemitism — the oldest, longest, most enduring of hatreds — and most lethal. If the Holocaust is a paradigm for radical evil, antisemitism is a paradigm for radical hate that must be combatted.

• The dangers of Holocaust denial and distortion — of assaults on truth and memory, and the whitewashing of the worst crimes in history.

• The danger of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide. The Holocaust, as the Supreme Court of Canada put it, “did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words.”

• The danger of silence in the face of evil — where silence incentivizes the oppressor, never helping the victim — and our responsibility always to protest against injustice.

• The dangers of indifference and inaction in the face of mass atrocity and genocide. What makes the Holocaust and the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda so horrific are not only the horrors themselves. What makes them so horrific is that they were preventable. Nobody could say we did not know. Just as today, with regard to mass atrocities being perpetrated against the Uyghurs, the Rohingya, and the Ukrainians — nobody can say we do not know. We know and we must act.

• The Trahison des Clercs — the betrayal of the elites — doctors and scientists, judges and lawyers, religious leaders and educators, engineers and architects. Nuremberg crimes were the crimes of Nuremberg elites. Our responsibility, therefore, is always to speak truth to power.

• The danger of cultures of impunity, and the corresponding responsibility to bring war criminals to justice. There must be no sanctuary for hate, no refuge for bigotry, no immunity for these enemies of humankind.

• The danger of the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable. The responsibility to give voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless. In a word, the test of a just society is how it treats its most vulnerable.

And so, the abiding and enduring lesson: We are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny. May this day be not only an act of remembrance, which it is, but a remembrance to act, which it must be — on behalf of our common humanity.

National Post

Irwin Cotler is Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He is Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.

Source: Irwin Cotler: The lessons of the Holocaust remain sadly relevant today

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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