July 9th 2012,
Honorary President of the French Committee for YAD VASHEM, member of the board of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah
Your Excellencies, distinguished ambassadors,
Madam the Director-General from UNESCO,
Mr President of VERBE & LUMIERE,
Mr Director of the Wiesenthal Center
Honorable gentlemen, Representatives of the Russian Holocaust Center
Winners of the international Russian competition,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Survivor of the hell of Auschwitz, loyal to its memory, witness to Kristalnacht in Vienna several years earlier, I am deeply touched to have been invited by the organisation ‘VERBE ET LUMIERE’ to say a few words today, on the occasion of the presence of the Russian prize-winners, who were selected from over 1700 contestants.
I am even more moved because this place, UNESCO, dedicated to education, humanism and peace, has, for the past several years, begun to grant an important place to the teaching of the Shoah within the context of its own objectives.
I would like to congratulate the representatives of the Russian Holocaust Center for its work over the past several years promoting the transmission of the memory of the greatest tragedy to strike western civilisation in the twentieth century.
I was deported from France in 1942, aged 17, together with my mother and sister to Auschwitz where they were gassed on arrival. In 1945, after the ‘death march, I escaped from the train which was taking survivors to Buchenwald concentration camp. I was liberated shortly afterwards by a Soviet patrol – the very day, more precisely January 27th 1945, that the Red Army liberated the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I consider this date not simply the date of my liberation, but the date of my second birth.
You can therefore surely imagine my feelings of gratitude towards your compatriots, and I would like to take this opportunity to express once more my appreciation for all that they did. I know the price they paid and how much we owe them for our freedom.
The prize-winners, whose work will be presented to us later on, showed seriousness and commitment in their research into the fate of the victims of the Nazi barbarism - particularly violent in their part of the world.
I would like to insist on one specific issue: that of our return to France after the war, which led to frequent misunderstandings and which, above all, revealed huge levels of ignorance towards the survivors of the Shoah. In fact, upon our return to France, a wall separated us from those who had also suffered differently.
I would like to talk to you today about the question of the transmission of our dramatic experience, the protection and the evolution of the memory of those events.
When we returned to France, we were initially faced with the need to convince those who were prepared to listen of the truth of what we told them. We had to describe the unimaginable, find the right words to make the unbelievable comprehensible. With words that were totally unsuitable. We had to try to get people to recognise that we had come from another universe, from which noone should have returned. Understanding us was not easy: there is no place in the human brain to accomodate such experiences as ours. Our arrival disturbed the peace of a population just emerging from wartime, who had suffered enormous deprivations and woes - obviously nothing comparable with what we had endured, but their experiences were the only ones that counted for them. We even seemed to some people slightly suspect for having survived the atrocities that we claimed to have been witness to, or indeed been victims of. We tried to explain, but faced with such difficulties, such a gap of comprehension, many of us resorted to silence for many years: we held our peace whilst trying to rebuild our lives, find work, and start a family.
Gradually, in France, various national and historical theses were put forward, one after another, and with time, books, photographs, films and the large number of testimonies made the truth impossible to avoid. The construction of sites of memory and the organisation of guided visits to the sites of the crimes added to the understanding of what we had suffered.
The next phase began when we survivors, started to talk, to teach and to contribute to the education of the younger generation. We filled in details in history books, and our testimonies completed the understanding of historians, who finally heard us.
Our concern, beyond the telling of our own stories, was to show how it was possible to transform legally men into murderers. We wanted above all to raise permanent awareness for future citizens, to inculcate a respect for life and other human beings, in order that the catastrophe that we had lived through should never happen again.
I can affirm that letters from teachers and schoolchildren, and even drawings done by the very youngest children, express their understanding and make our efforts worthwhile.
We are today continuing with our efforts, but a new dimension has been added. Our world has changed considerably in the last few years. Considerable technical advances have been made, but this has not been matched by a hoped-for comparable moral development. In fact, cultural deficiency has become more marked. Antisemitic and racist violence of unprecedented dimensions has flared up again, dragging our world back in the opposite direction to what we had hoped for. Ignorance combined with hatred inevitably produces violence and the kinds of dramas that we find ourselves witnessing again and again.
That is precisely what we were striving to eradicate.
Hatred was the source of all our suffering.
It was fanatical hatred, impregnating an entire nation, as well as collaborators in other countries, which led six million Jews to the empty void of communal graves, to the ravines of Ukraine and Belarus, to the death camps whose names, thanks to the work of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and other memorial sites, will never be forgotten.
Yet, as we see today, the same mistakes are being made again, in other places.
The lessons of the past have apparently not been learned.
Our motto, “NEVER AGAIN”, has been forgotten, through ignorance and aggression.
Will the flame of History be extinguished, no longer there to guide our spirits?
Our fears are resurfacing!
Might we miss our goal, having believed that we have fulfilled our duty of transmission?
Might generations to come, have to relive what we experienced?
We hear calls, before international organisations, for the destruction of Israel, with absolutely no sanctions applied.
Books teaching hatred of Jews circulate without condemnation.
The internet spreads calls to murder and sometimes we even hear such things coming from the mouths of religious leaders, instead of peaceful words that we would expect.
I believe that for us, the survivors of the Shoah, our role is not simply to bear witness to what was. Our role henceforth is to make a plea, loud and clear, against all forms of antisemitism and xenophobia, today and tomorrow: a plea for vigilance, which must be heard by all citizens, by all governments, by all political and religious leaders, in every country of the world.
We owe it to the memory of each and every victim of the Shoah!