For a change, the United Nations felt like home last week.
Holocaust survivors, their families and friends took the seats of pinstriped diplomats in the U.N.’s massive General Assembly hall. Emotional speeches replaced impersonal debates about war and poverty. And bitter exchanges over Israel and Palestine gave way to a dignified ceremony of remembrance of the Holocaust.
The special session, held on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, culminated a series of events marking the U.N.’s first annual commemoration of the Holocaust. It honored victims and survivors, while also providing a platform for renewed calls to prevent further genocides such as the one unfolding in Darfur.
Although the world body was founded after World War II partly as a response to the Holocaust, it took 60 years to establish an official remembrance day. In a rare show of unanimity on a Jewish-related issue, in November, the 191 members of the General Assembly approved the day. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to issue a report in June on the implementation of the resolution, which besides establishing the observance, mandated the world body to bolster efforts to promote Holocaust remembrance and education.
Last week’s ceremony — packed with speeches by U.N. and Israeli diplomats and by academics about the need to remember the Holocaust and to prevent further genocides — sounded a rare emotional note in the normally polished atmosphere of the General Assembly.
Perhaps the most vivid moment occurred when Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein — hunched over the lectern, close to tears, and speaking in a frail voice — recounted her nightmarish ordeal, which was the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary “One Survivor Remembers.” She spoke of losing her whole family and a close friend and of the exhausting 350-mile death march ordered by her captors before her liberation by an American soldier who later became her husband.
Earlier, pictures of a dozen Holocaust victims provided by Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial were shown on two large screens as Shashi Tharoor, U.N. undersecretary for communications and public information, read the tragic narratives of their shortened lives. The crowd clapped respectfully and sang along to one of the Holocaust-era songs performed by Boston’s Zamir Chorale.
Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Dan Gillerman, whose grandparents perished during World War II, urged the world to imagine the horrors of the Holocaust and expressed deep regret that Israel did not exist at the time to prevent them.
Several speakers alluded to the recent outburst of Holocaust denial by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In addition to Ahmadinejad’s call to wipe Israel off the map and his suggestion that the Holocaust was a myth, Tehran has announced that it will host a conference to debate whether the Nazi atrocities actually took place.
The Iranian mission to the U.N. issued a statement on the observance day, condemning genocide against any race, ethnic or religious group as a crime against humanity. But, the statement added, “rendering political judgments on such events and closing the door to any scientific inquiry on their characteristics, scope and extent would seriously undermine the sincerity of the endeavor.”
“Regrettably, the Zionist regime has routinely attempted to exploit the sufferings of the Jewish people in the past as a cover for its crimes being perpetrated today against Palestinians in the occupied territories, including massacre, demolition of houses, properties and farmlands, as well as acts of state terrorism,” the statement said.
Israeli and Western officials have denounced Tehran’s rhetoric and have used it to underscore the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“We sound an alarm, a call to arms, and a wake-up call to the world,” Gillerman told the audience. “A world in which a member state of this organization calls for wiping Israel off the face of the map. A world in which an extreme and evil regime denies the Holocaust while preparing the next one.”
In a videotaped address to the memorial ceremony, Annan did not refer to Iran by name, but the implication was clear.
“Remembering is a necessary rebuke to those who say the Holocaust never happened or has been exaggerated,” the U.N. secretary-general said. “Holocaust denial is the work of bigots. We must reject their false claims whenever, wherever and by whomever they are made.”