Holocaust Memorial Day – Irish minister’s speech

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Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence, writes on the anniversary of Ireland’s 10th Holocaust Day.

Allied soldiers arrived at the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp 67 years ago today, 27 January 1945.  It had become the largest graveyard of the Jewish people in history.

An estimated 1.1 to 1.3 million people were exterminated there, 90 per cent of them Jewish men, women and children. Others exterminated included Roma families, people with disabilities, homosexuals, prisoners of conscience and religious faith.

Nothing could prepare the camps liberators for what they witnessed in Auschwitz.

The remnants of the gas chambers and the crematoria; the mounds of bodies; the stench of death; the piles of clothes; of teeth; of childrens’ shoes
and barely living skeletal survivors; the speaking bones who greeted their arrival.  By the war’s end, it was estimated that 6 million Jews had been
exterminated by the Nazi killing machine in pursuit of the objective of a Judenfrei world.  If Hitler had achieved his objectives no Jewish community in Europe would have been exempt from the Nazi slaughter, not even those resident in neutral Ireland.

In Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a map of Europe prepared by Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the extermination policy, includes the estimated 4,000 members of the then Irish Jewish community targeted for extermination.  Clearly, had Germany succeeded in invading Britain, our proclaimed war time neutrality would have provided no protection for the small Irish Jewish community nor presented any real barrier to a German invasion.

It is of vital importance that we and future generations remember and learn from the horrors of the past to ensure they are not repeated in the future. In his book The Drowned and the Saved Primo Levi writes that “human memory is a  marvellous  but fallacious instrument. This is a threadbare truth, known not only to psychologists but also to anyone who has paid attention to the behaviour of those who surround him or even to his own behaviour. The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone;  not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change or even increase by incorporating extraneous features”.

Despite everything witnessed, the accounts of survivors and the voluminous records maintained by Germany itself of the Nazi killing machine and the many Holocaust memorials and museums worldwide, there are now too many in Europe who know very little of the horrors perpetrated in the second quarter of the last century and far too many in the State of Israel’s neighbours  in the volatile Middle East engaged in Holocaust denial. Again in the words of Primo Levi, “the further events fade into the past, the more the construction of convenient truth grows and is perfected.”

These acts of evil emerged in one of the more modern and sophisticated societies of the era

As the years pass by and the remaining survivors of the Nazi horror who can tell the story first-hand reduce in number, it becomes more important than ever that we keep alive the shocking memory of the Holocaust. It is crucial that we never forget what happened or diminish the scale of the horror that was perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

It is difficult to comprehend how a society could have allowed such unimaginable atrocities to occur. We must remember that the Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum. These acts of evil emerged in one of the more modern and sophisticated societies of the era.

Tools and advances made toward human progress were used for human destruction.  Scientific and medical advances designed to heal and save lives were used to kill.  Education which should enlighten was used to justify grotesquely immoral actions.  People made choices. Some chose to be involved in some way in the destruction, others chose to do and say nothing,  while some chose to resist the evil and do the right thing to support, protect and save the persecuted.

An  inconvenient truth is that those who chose to do and say nothing during this unprecedented period in European history include this State.  In the period following Hitler coming to power and preceding the Second World War, the  doors of this State were kept firmly closed to German Jewish families trying  to flee from persecution and death. The advice of the anti-Semitic then-Irish Ambassador in Berlin, Charles Bewley, that Ireland should be protected from the contamination that would result from granting residential visas to Jewish refugees resulted in practically all visa requests  being  refused.

In the context of the Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of moral bankruptcy

This position was maintained from 1939 to 1945 and we should no longer be in denial that, in the context of the Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of  moral bankruptcy. This  moral bankruptcy was compounded by the then Irish Government who, after the war, only allowed an indefensibly small number who survived the concentration camps to settle permanently in Ireland whilst refusing entry and permanent residence to many more and also by the visit of President De Valera to then German Ambassador Edouard Hemple in 1945 to express his condolences on the death  of  Hitler. At a time when neutrality should have ceased to be an issue, the Government of this State utterly lost its moral compass.

So,  in understanding the Holocaust and maintaining its memory, in ensuring that the conditions which allow such evil to flourish to such devastating consequences can never again prevail, we should not forget or ignore the failures of this State and this State’s responsibility for such failures.

John Bruton, as Taoiseach, in the Spring of 1995, acknowledged our State’s failures and honoured the memory of those millions of European Jews who died in the Holocaust. When doing so, he acknowledged that the Holocaust “was not the product of an alien culture. It happened in Europe in living memory. It was a product of intolerance, bigotry and a distorted concept of nationalism.”

In  the midst of the ongoing fiscal and banking crisis that currently  impacts on the nations of Europe, including our State, we should never lose sight of the extraordinary contribution of the European Union in providing the political architecture for peace and stability in Europe.  As

Europeans we must all ensure that in addressing vital issues of immediate concern that affect the lives of tens of millions, it is the European ideals of peace, cooperation and solidarity and not extreme nationalism nor narrow domestic political concerns which motivate our actions.

It is appropriate that we revisit the morality of the conduct of our State during the 1930s and ’40s, whilst of course being conscious of the fact that
only a short time earlier, we had regained our independence from Britain and there was an understandable concern by Government to ensure, insofar as possible,  political stability on this island at a time of global conflict.

No-one should assume that what happened in the past cannot be repeated in the future

However, there were questionable things both done and not done and we should not be in denial nor should we ignore that the conduct of our State, at that time, in the eyes of some, delimits Ireland’s moral authority and credibility when today we seek to lecture later generations of those whose families  survived the Holocaust on the conduct of their affairs in Israel, without regard to the extent to which they believe themselves under existential threat.

No-one should assume that what happened in the past cannot be repeated in the future. The truth is we should pay greater attention to the dead.

We must never forget the lessons of the past when we make, or urge others to make, decisions which impact on the future. We should never ignore the extent to which their past impacts on their perception of the present and fuels their fears of the future or causes them to question the judgement of others.

I am pleased that Ireland became a full member of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research in December 2011. This Task Force is a voice of moral authority on the international stage in raising awareness about the Holocaust and can help address the dynamics that we know precede mass killings and genocide.

Ireland’s 10th National Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, organised by the  Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, will take place this coming Sunday, January 29. This commemoration event, which is now firmly established in the Irish national calendar, has been supported by my Department since 2003 and I am very pleased to be in a position to continue that support.

For well over a decade, we have commemorated and paid tribute to the estimated 10,000 Irish people who died in British uniforms during the Second World War. Many who fought  in British uniforms during that War returned to Ireland. For too many years, their contribution in preserving European and Irish democracy was ignored. Some of those include members of our Defence  Forces who left this island during that time to fight for freedom and who were subsequently dishonourably discharged from the Defence Forces.

I believe it is also appropriate that we revisit the manner in which they were treated whilst also remembering that those who served in our  Defence Forces throughout that time performed a crucial national duty. It is untenable that we commemorate those who died whilst continuing to ignore the manner in which our State treated the living, in the period immediately after World War II, who returned to our State having fought for freedom  and  democracy. This is an issue to which I hope to return in my role as Minister for Defence later this year

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