The United Nations on Wednesday held its annual ceremony in commemoration of International Holocaust Memorial Day, with the organization’s secretary-general urging a stand against what he described as widespread hatred and racism in the world today.
Antonio Guterres was joined at the event — in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York — by General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak, Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon, Holocaust survivors and dozens of ambassadors from around the world.
Guterres began by thanking the survivors who came to the ceremony.
The Holocaust, he said, was the “culmination of hostility toward Jews across the millennia.”
“Since hatred and contempt of human lives are rampant in our time, we must stand guard against xenophobia every day and everywhere,” he continued. “Across the world, the state of hate is high.
“This annual day of commemoration is about the past, but also the future; it is about Jews but also all others who find themselves scapegoated and vilified solely because of who they are,” Guterres said.
Among the Holocaust survivors who were invited to participate was Eva Lavi, originally from Krakow, Poland, and now a resident of Israel, who survived World War II along with her parents after they were saved by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler.
Lavi told those assembled how Schindler had diverted her and her parents to his factory after they were sent to board a train for the Auschwitz concentration camp. Other members of her extended family were murdered by the Nazis, she said.
“The Holocaust should be a significant warning to what might happen when racism, hatred, violence and anti-Semitism permeate the world,” Lavi said. “At the end of the day, we must learn to live with each other and respect each other. We were all created equal in the image of God”
Although International Holocaust Memorial Day was set for January 27, various countries and organizations hold events on the days before or after.
Danon used his address to speak out against legislation under review in Poland that would criminalize apportioning any blame for Holocaust-era anti-Semitic atrocities to Poles.
“We must never allow any legislation to pass that denies the truth and rewrites history,” he said. “As we honor those few brave souls who stood strongly against evil and saved Jews from death, we must not forget those who cooperated with the Nazi evildoers. We will firmly oppose any attempt to distort the truth.”
Israel has pilloried the law, which prescribes prison time for referring to “Polish death camps” and forbids any mention of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes. Poland has long maintained that it was occupied by Germany and that it was the Nazis who set up and operated concentration camps on its territory. The Polish Senate was set to vote on the bill Wednesday.
Lajcak, the General Assembly president, echoed Guterres in urging greater efforts against contemporary human rights abuses.
“We are not here today just to remember the Holocaust,” he said. “We are also here to remind ourselves of our collective failure to prevent it. The Holocaust was not a surprise, it did not happen overnight. We saw it coming and we didn’t stop it.”
“When it was over we made a promise — never again — and we meant it. But, unfortunately this promise has not always been kept.”
Lajcak said the global body tended to spend time talking and condemning rather than take action against racism and intolerance. Instead, he urged the UN to act early with the tools it has, when action is needed.
“Too often we did not have the courage to call things exactly what they are, and to act accordingly,” he said. “So we need to reflect on our inaction and, indeed, our failures. But we must also use this occasion to inspire change.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.