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Key-note speech by the Taoiseach, Mr. Leo Varadkar, T.D., National Holocaust Memorial Day 28 January 2018 Mansion House, Dublin

 

Lord Mayor,

Ladies and Gentlemen.

 

I am honoured to be with you this evening, particularly in the presence of survivors and families of those who survived the Holocaust, and I thank Holocaust Education Trust Ireland for the kind invitation to deliver the key-note speech.  I would also like to acknowledge both the Lord Mayor of Dublin and the Department of Justice and Equality who support this event every year.

 

Why do we remember?  We remember because the horrors of the Holocaust are seared on our consciousness, and we come together to reaffirm that we will never forget.  We remember because it is the best way of showing our solidarity –and sharing our determination to honour the men, women and children who perished.  It is our way of trying to comprehend the impossible, to make sense of something that almost defies belief.

 

The former Ireland Professor of Poetry, Harry Clifton, has written movingly about the six million people who were about to be exterminated in what he calls ‘the real Apocalypse’.  He describes the gas chambers, with the ‘the steamroom disspatings, the    bath-house stink,’ and reaches the profound conclusion that ‘As the people of the Book undressed themselves, I learned at last how to think’.  Remembering forces us to think. 

 

Thanks to the work of international scholars and national organisations like the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland we are able to honour the dead by remembering their lives and learning from what happened to them.  We remember Ettie Steinberg, who grew up and lived in Portobello in Dublin, and who moved to the continent after her marriage.  Forced to go on the run with her husband, and their child, Leon, she and her family were arrested in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz where they perished.  Her story has been described by an Irish writer as ‘a single tear in a veritable ocean of pain and suffering’.  I am delighted that the Irish Jewish Museum in Portobello has erected a memorial to Ettie and her son, Irish citizens who shared a humanity and a fate with millions of other citizens from Europe and around the world.

 

I’m also greatly encouraged by the success of programmes run by HETI as part of their effort to spread education about the Holocaust, especially the Crocus Project. 

This introduces young people to the subject of the Holocaust and raises awareness about the dangers of racism, discrimination, prejudice and hatred.  By planting yellow crocus bulbs, evoking the yellow Stars of David worn by Jewish people under Nazi rule, school children remember the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust and thousands of other children who were victims of Nazi atrocities.

 

The story of the Irish state in this period is a mixed one.  The Taoiseach, Eamon De Valera, should be commended for recognising the Jewish congregations in the new constitution in 1937, despite some criticism and opposition.  It was a courageous stand during a particularly dark period.  He personally intervened to try and help refugees, often against the objections and obstacles of his own government departments.  However the truth is that we could have – and should have done more. 

 

That sense of shame should guide us as we face the problems of the world today.  I am reminded of a quote from the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who said; ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves’. The words of Mr. Frankl, a holocaust survivor, are just as relevant today in a world where stories of racism and hatred have begun to once again dominate news headlines around the world.  We cannot remain silent.  No improvement can come unless we move to make it happen. 

 

As we gather here today to remember 6 million innocent people who were murdered during the horrors of the Holocaust, it obliges us to think of the human rights abuses occurring in today’s world.  The Holocaust reminds us of what can happen when hatred and racism are given free rein. 

 

One of the pre-eminant scholars of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, has written about the catastrophe in terms of the perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders.  I wonder if we also need to take a similar approach when facing the moral crises of the present. 

 

The first step to understanding what happened in the 1930s is to recognise how Jewish people were stripped of their social life, how they were excluded and silenced, before they were exterminated. 

 

We need to understand how they became victims, so we can intervene when others are treated the same way.  We also need to recognise when we are bystanders.  The moral quandary of the bystander is always there.

 

The most difficult thing of all is to try and understand the perpetrators.  It is only if we understand those who commit the atrocities that we have a better chance of stopping them.

 

We must use the memory of what happened during the Holocaust to ensure that a similar event can never be allowed to happen again.  The threat of terror in today’s world causes people to be afraid.  This fear can breed contempt as people look for someone or some group to blame.  We must be mindful that our fears do not become an excuse for racism and prejudice.  The Holocaust should serve as a warning from history.

 

Today, we offer a welcome on our shores to refugees from war-torn regions such as Syria, but we also extend our support outward, through development and humanitarian assistance and not least through the service abroad of our peacekeepers. 

In the twenty-first century the world faces a significant challenge in responding to growing demands for assistance, caused by protracted crises and new emergencies, and accelerated by climate change, population growth and conflict. 

 

Former President Mary Robinson has said that today’s human rights violations are the causes of tomorrow’s conflicts.   This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This milestone document set out for the first time fundamental human rights to be universally protected.  It was drafted in response to the horrors of World War II as an expression of the will of the international community to never again allow such atrocities to happen. 

 

In today’s changing global environment we are confronted by new challenges and threats to human rights. 

 

At a time of evident threats to the rule of law and democracy, Ireland is playing an important role in upholding these principles which underpin our domestic and foreign policies.  We will not be bystanders anymore.

 

Conclusion

I would like to conclude by saying how humbled I am to be in the presence of survivors of the Holocaust today and their families. 

 

Today reminds us of the importance of educating ourselves and others about the Holocaust to ensure that such an atrocity is never allowed to occur again.  It also allows us to reaffirm our shared principle that hatred and prejudice have no place in today’s society.

 

The great Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, joined the Resistance in Paris in 1941, and was profoundly influenced by the Holocaust and what he saw.  After the war, he volunteered with the Irish Red Cross, and wrote about how he had discovered a ‘humanity in ruins’.

 

That, to me, is what the Holocaust represents.  It was an act without conscience which left humanity in ruins.  Each generation we work to rebuild and repair what was destroyed, but we can never recover what was lost.  All we can do is share a warning from history and send a message of hope that will resonate for all time.