I am pleased I could speak to you today on behalf of my colleague Hon Chris Finlayson who overseas. I was delighted to be asked to host you at Parliament. I have long had an interest in the Shoah, or Holocaust. One of the most profound experiences of my life was visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2010. I wrote my honours dissertation at the Victoria University Law School on Holocaust denial laws and hate speech.
Just three weeks ago I was in Budapest. Our hotel was in the Jewish Quarter and my partner and I spent a very interesting half day visiting the magnificent Great Synagogue. It seats 3000 people and is the second largest in the world after New York City. I was intrigued to discover that the Jewish Museum which is an annex to the synagogue, is built on the site of Theodor Herzl’s house of birth. Of course Dohany Street, where the synagogue stands, was the border of the Budapest ghetto.
Mr Finlayson was recently invited by the New Zealand Jewish Council to share his thoughts about the Holocaust. His statement, along with a number of others, appeared in the New Zealand Herald yesterday. I thought it appropriate to open my speech by sharing his statement with you:
The world was so traumatised by the horrors of what happened in Germany in the years 1939 to 1945 that no one ever believed it could possibly happen again. But look at the events of the past 12 months: all across Europe we see the rise of far-right parties who have anti-Semitism at their core. The phrase “never again” rings hollow. The lethal obsession with Jews changes its form every generation but the essential irrational hatred is still there. An understandable response would be despair. That is unacceptable. The beast needs to be confronted by all decent people year in and year out, decade in and decade out. History has shown anti- Semitism will never be defeated but it must always be challenged and contained.
We are here to recognise the United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day which brings the international community together to remember the millions of victims of the Holocaust.
This memorial day was established by the UN General Assembly in 2005 and it is the tenth year of commemorations in New Zealand.
Many of us have just come from the Holocaust Memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Makara which is, quite rightly, the centre of the annual commemorations.
Today we pause to reflect on the magnitude and horrors of the Holocaust, a genocide which was central to Nazi Germany’s attempt to dominate Europe and the world.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of two of the Nuremberg trials – an attempt to hold some of those responsibilities for the atrocities of the Holocaust accountable for their actions.
The Doctors Trial took place between 1946 and 1947. Twenty-three people were accused of crimes against humanity, including conducting medical experiments on prisoners of war and participating in mass murder.
Sixteen judges and lawyers were tried as part of the Judges or Justice Trial in 1947 for implementing laws which furthered the Nazi ‘racial purity’ plan.
Some of the accused were acquitted and those convicted received a range of sentences from varying terms of imprisonment to death.
As well as holding people to account, proceedings at Nuremberg led to a number of UN declarations and conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and were an important step towards a permanent international court.
As is often repeated, we must never forget the horrors of the past. That is why today’s commemorations are so vital. But we must also look to the future and hope that in confronting these events we will not be doomed to repeat ourselves.
Racial and religious hatred still exist. Anti-Semitism is not restricted to the pages of history. We must be vigilant against such hatreds. We are lucky to live in a culturally diverse country and I think most people recognise we are richer for that diversity. Attacks on any one minority group, whether ethnic or religious, can lead to attacks on other groups as well as breed dangerous division.
There are many good people and organisations that are aware of the dangers that the history of the Holocaust warn us about:
The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, now ten years old, does great work educating people about what happened during that time and how we must keep away from letting it happen again.
The Human Rights Commission works at a national level to raise awareness of what can go wrong and how to keep New Zealand a safe place.
Programmes teaching school children how to combat bullying and speak out against discrimination and hate speech are a vital way of setting the right standards from an early age.
I am based in the Hutt Valley and I see a lot of good work taking place in that community. The Hutt Multicultural Council and the Upper Hutt Multicultural Council work to spread knowledge of minority groups, and bring people together to understand each other’s backgrounds and attitudes.
Observing United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day reminds us what human weakness and hatred can lead to, but also how we must do everything we can to avoid the same disasters in the future. In the words of Simon Weisenthal:
“The history of man is the history of crimes, and history can repeat. So information is a defence. Through this we can build, we must build, a defence against repetition.”