Yom Hashoah – National Holocaust Remembrance Day – is a poignant and painful historical moment of remembrance and reminder – of bearing witness – of learning and acting upon the enduring and universal lessons of Holocaust remembrance, including;

  • Lesson One: The danger of forgetting – the imperative of remembrance – le devoir de memoir: of remembrance of horrors too terrible to be believed but not too terrible to have happened: of the Holocaust, as Nobel Peace Laureate and Holocaust survivor Professor Elie Wiesel would remind us again and again: “The Holocaust was a war against the Jews in which not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were targeted victims”; of the demonization and dehumanization of the Jew as prologue and justification for their mass murder; of the mass murder of six million Jews, 1.5 million of whom were children, not just as a matter of abstract statistics, but as we say at such moments, of remembrance: “Unto each person there is a name, each person is an identity, each person is a universe,” reminding us of the teaching — “hametzil adam ahat, ke’ilu hitzil olam kulo – that if you save a single person, it is as if you have saved an entire universe.” And so, the overriding first lesson: That we are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.
  • Lesson Two: The Dangers of Antisemitism of which the death camp Auschwitz – the most brutal extermination camp of the twentieth century – is both message and metaphor: 1.3 million people were deported to the death camp Auschwitz; 1.1 million of them were Jews. Let there be no mistake about it: Jews were murdered at Auschwitz because of antisemitism, but antisemitism itself did not die at Auschwitz. It remains the bloodied canary in the mineshaft of global evil today, toxic to democracies, a threat to 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. Indeed, antisemitism is a paradigm for radical hate as the Holocaust is a paradigm for radical evil.
  • Lesson Three: The Danger of State Sanctioned Incitement to Genocide.  As the Supreme Court put it, “the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words.” These, as the court put it, are the catastrophic effects of racism. These, as the court put it, are the chilling facts of history. It is this teaching of contempt, this demonizing of the other, this is where it all begins. In particular, incitement to genocide is not merely a warning sign of preventable tragedy; it is itself an international crime prohibited in the Genocide Convention. We have a responsibility to recognize, address, and redress this violation of the Genocide Convention.
  • Lesson Four: The Danger of Holocaust Denial and Distortion, Inversion and Banalization. Holocaust distortion is not only an assault upon history but an assault on memory and truth – a conspiracy to whitewash and cover up the worst crime in history.
  • Lesson Five: The Danger of Silence in the Face of Evil – where silence becomes complicit with evil itself – and the importance, the responsibility, to speak up, and stand up, and combat the conspiracy of silence.
  • Lesson Six: The Rescue of Raoul Wallenberg – the Responsibility to Pay Tribute to the Rescuers – the Righteous Among the Nations – of whom the Swedish non-Jew and Canada’s first Honourary Citizen, Raoul Wallenberg is metaphor and message. Raoul Wallenberg demonstrated how one person with the compassion to care, and the courage to act, can confront evil, prevail and transform history.
  • Lesson Seven: The Danger of Indifference and Inaction in the Face of Mass Atrocity and Genocide. In the face of such evil, indifference is acquiescence, if not complicity in evil itself. For years, we knew but did not act to stop the slaughter of the innocents in Syria, ignoring the lessons of history and mocking the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. What makes the Holocaust, and genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, and more recently the Rohingya and the Uyghers, so unspeakable is not only the horror of the genocides – which are horrific enough – but that these genocides were preventable. Nobody could say we did not know. We knew but we did not act. The international community cannot be bystanders to such horror – we must act.
  • Lesson Eight: The Dangers of Impunity. If the twentieth century, and the first decades of the twenty-first century are the age of atrocity, they are also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice; and so it is our responsibility to ensure that these hostis humanis generis – these enemies of humankind – are brought to justice, lest the culture of impunity incentivize more atrocity crimes.

May I close with a special word for the Holocaust survivors amongst us. For you have endured the worst of inhumanity, yet you somehow found, in the resources of your own humanity, the courage to go on, to build a family, to build a future, and to make an enduring contribution to each of the global communities in which you reside – and where we have all been your beneficiaries.

And so, may this Holocaust  Remembrance Day be not only an act of remembrance, which it is, but may it also be a remembrance to act – on behalf of our common humanity, and our universal values.

Irwin Cotler, International Chair of the RWCHR