On January 27, the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the United Nations and much of the world will be observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. Sadly, the rhetoric of commemoration will once again be severely undercut by the international community’s wholly inadequate response to the numerous genocides that have taken place, and continue to take place, since the end of World War II.
Sixty-five years ago, on January 28, 1946, precisely one year and a day after Soviet troops had entered Auschwitz, Marie Claude Vaillant-Couturier took the stand at the international military tribunal at Nuremberg where Adolf Hitler’s erstwhile deputy, Hermann Goering, and 20 other senior German government officials were on trial for war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. A member of the French anti-German underground, Vaillant-Couturier, had been deported to Auschwitz in January of 1943 “with a convoy of 230 French women,” of whom, as she recounted, only 49 eventually “came back to France.”
Vaillant-Couturier, who later served as a Communist member of France’s parliament, described the conditions at Auschwitz in horrific detail. She remembered being in a barrack adjacent to Block 25, “the anteroom of the gas chamber,” where “One saw stacks of corpses piled up in the courtyard, and from time to time a hand or a head would stir among the bodies trying to free itself. It was a dying woman attempting to get free and live.”
“One night,” she testified, “we were awakened by terrifying cries. And we discovered, on the following day… that on the preceding day, the gas supply having run out, they had thrown the children into the furnaces alive.”
As early as November of 1943, the leaders of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union jointly declared that those responsible for the “atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions which are being perpetrated by the Hitlerite forces” would be held accountable. During the summer of 1945, a new cause of action for “crimes against humanity” was created to enable the perpetrators of systematic mass killings, including the genocide of European Jewry, to be brought to justice at Nuremberg and elsewhere.
The Genocide Convention, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 9, 1949, was meant to put an end to systematic mass killings as a means of promoting megalomaniacal aspirations of ethnic or religious supremacy. Instead, the past half-century has seen devastating new genocides in Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly and unabashedly threatens the citizens of Israel with genocidal destruction, has yet to be declared a criminal under either the Genocide Convention or the Nuremberg standards.
Only recently, many of us were appalled to learn from newly released White House recordings that in March of 1973, Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s national security adviser, told his boss that “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Thereafter, Kissinger, as secretary of state, did nothing to stop the massacres in East Timor at the hands of Indonesian forces that claimed more than 100,000 lives.
Kissinger could learn something from Asidada Dudic, who was a student of mine in a seminar on World War II war crimes trials at Cornell Law School. She is also a survivor of the genocidal atrocities perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in the 1990s.
As a child, she spent three years in refugee camps with her mother and sisters. A “hurtful reality,” Adisada writes, “reminds me that my home country is destroyed, my family members are scattered all over the world, thousands of Bosnian women and girls were raped and ravaged, thousands of Bosnian men and boys were tortured in concentration camps and buried in mass graves, and so many of my people were slaughtered by an enemy hand that was out to get every single person that self-identified as a Bosnian Muslim…. I am infuriated that we continue to have gross violations of human rights all over the world while we continue to find excuses for why we cannot interfere in other countries’ affairs.”
Adisada understands what Henry Kissinger, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, apparently did not. Eradicating the scourge of genocide must be an American foreign policy priority. Indeed, it must be a priority of every civilized nation, of every civilized human being.
On January 27, there are certain to be moving speeches in the U.N. General Assembly that will focus on the ghosts and shadows of the past. However, unless we as an international society unambiguously commit ourselves to preventing all such atrocities and to protecting innocent victims like Adisada, our collective remembrance of the Holocaust will ring hollow.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz, is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.