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Speech to Auschwitz Liberation Commemoration

Hon Chris Carter
27 January 2004 Speech

Speech to Auschwitz Liberation Commemoration

Delivered: Auckland Synagogue, Grey's Avenue, Auckland

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to join you this evening. It is a privilege to be part of this commemoration, and to be here with you as you honour all those who died in the Holocaust, and those that survived.

The Prime Minister telephoned me today and asked me to tell you that her thoughts are with you this evening.

On this week six decades ago, the advancing Red Army stumbled upon the remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and some 7,000 of its surviving prisoners. These were the last remnants of more than one million people who had walked through the gates of the camp between 1940 and 1945, underneath the slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – Work Will Set You Free.

As we all know, in Auschwitz there was no freedom: only death, suffering, and depravity.

Under Nazi rule, one could have been sent to Auschwitz for many reasons. Political belief, educational background and sexual orientation all sufficed. Poles were gassed for listening to Allied radio, avoiding forced labour or smuggling food to the inhabitants of the ghettoes. Thousands of Roma, Russian prisoners of war and the mentally ill also perished. But the greatest suffering by far was reserved for Europe’s Jews, simply for being Jewish.

For them, Auschwitz was a sinister factory of death. Every day, transports from all across Europe, places as far as Norway and Greece, would pull up to the Birkenau selection platform. The children and the elderly would be the first to be marked for death. In any transport of 3,000 people, usually less than one hundred would survive the first hour. And so it went on, day after day.

In 1987, I visited Auschwitz with my partner Peter. A few years before we visited Dachau together. I don't think either of us will ever forget those experiences. As gay men, we knew that had we been born in the wrong time and the wrong place, we could have ended up in those camps. Like you, we would have been condemned, not for who we are but for what we are.

The history of the Holocaust is well documented, for those who want to know it. But documents are not the same as memories. As generations pass, and those who experienced the Holocaust pass too, there is a risk the horrors inflicted by Nazism will become just words on a page, grainy images of another time or place far removed from today, and the decisions we now make as a society.

We cannot allow that to happen. One of the reasons for commemorating this anniversary is to ensure it never does. Nazism, Auschwitz and the Holocaust have become and must remain, living warnings of the evil humankind is unfortunately capable of. They must remain endlessly relevant because the same attitudes and failings that allowed the Final Solution to develop, still reside in our natures.

Genocide, racism, and anti-Semitism still continue in the world. Jewish graves are still desecrated in Wellington. Somalis and Asians are still beaten up in Christchurch, and Muslim women are still spat on in Auckland. The difference between New Zealand today and Nazi Germany is that we as a society do not tolerate these actions, let alone encourage them. As a society we condemn them, and we condemn them in part because the spectre of the Holocaust reminds us of where that road leads.

I would draw your attention to the public outcry over the desecration of Jewish graves in Wellington last year. The act was horrifying but the response should warm your hearts. There was a broad and strongly felt reaction from the public. A substantial demonstration in support of racial harmony ensued, as did an unequivocal statement by Parliament condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms.

This week New Zealand took part in the United Nations Special Session on the Holocaust, and rededicated itself to the active promotion of tolerance, understanding, and respect for those of all ethnicities, and religions.

That is what the Holocaust has taught us. Beliefs are important, identity is important, but not at the expense of humanity.

Prime Minister Helen Clark is keenly aware that genocide and evil can appear even in the most civilised and advanced nations on earth. Governments must be active in guarding against it, and governments must protect all their citizens.

My children know what happened at Auschwitz-Birkenau. So will, I hope, their children and their descendants for the rest of human history, even when the crematoria, the guard towers and the razor wire posts have long since crumbled into dust.

We need to remember that there was a time when a person’s inherent characteristics, such as race, ethnic origin or sexual orientation, spelt almost certain death. Perhaps then the memory of Auschwitz will remind us to think before we speak, to exercise empathy and judgement before we act and to stop and take pause before we judge our fellow human beings.

Thank you.

ENDS

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