New York—Steven Spielberg, director of Schindler’s List, founder of the Shoah Visual History Foundation now based at UCLA, and a man who learned his numbers from a Holocaust survivor’s tattoo in his grandparent’s home, was the keynote speaker at the UN on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. This year’s theme was “Journeys Through the Holocaust,’ and coordinating exhibitions at the UN were focused on the Holocaust in Hungary.
The General Assembly hall was filled with 1200 people who were first greeted by Austrian Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, UN Undersecretary-General and shown a video of Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, who was in Switzerland for Syrian peace negotiations. He reminded the audience that the UN was created in large part to assure that horrors like the Holocaust would never occur again—but that the poison of discrimination leads to genocides, and it is the job of all of us to teach tolerance to future generations.
In his speech, Spielberg, who spoke after the American and Israeli ambassadors to the UN, said he used Schindler’s List to describe the consequences of European anti-Semitism. While shooting in Auschwitz, he found many survivors who approached him and asked him to tell their stories. That is what led to the creation of the foundation which archives more than 52,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies and is now collecting testimonies from survivors of other genocides. He discovered that “it was their hope to eventually be heard that kept many survivors alive. Listening to their testimonies is a journey to understanding.”
Why do genocides like those in Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda continue? How can people in those circumstances rebuild their lives and communities? “For most people, the numbers of victims is incomprehensible and just diminishes their sensitivity to atrocities. They feel overwhelming despair and are paralyzed. We must have the courage to look at these events and act on our acquired knowledge. Truth should lead to policy, if we make the right choices. Humanity must come together and anticipate mass murder. The UN could thus protect us from despair.”
U.S. Amb. Samantha Power, who served four years as Senior Director for Human Rights of the National Security Council, was chair of the Atrocities Prevention Board, and wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, pointed out that Hitler mocked the West for not accepting Jews and proclaimed “If there will be war, the Jews will be annihilated… He kept probing for international resistance to his threats, but found very little.” She speculated that had Hitler faced united confrontation, there might never have been a Second World War or the implementation of “the Final Solution.” Today, she said, we have to make sure that the Syrian government allows food to reach its besieged people. “We must always confront evil and stop all abuse. It is our responsibility to remember those who perished, and those who endured the Holocaust.”
Israeli Amb. Ron Prosser, said “Survivors helped establish a vibrant Israel, the only place where the Jewish people have full control over their own lives and destiny. Jews are still plagued by prejudice and can never again be not ready to defend themselves. …We must all educate against antisemitism, silence, and indifference, and for acceptance, compassion, and tolerance. We must practice remembrance with resolve.”
Schindler List survivor Rena Finder spoke after Spielberg. She is associated with Facing History & Ourselves and talks about her experiences to students in middle schools, high schools and colleges. She also trains teachers to make the history of the Holocaust relevant to their students’ lives. When she arrived in the United States, no one was comfortable hearing her story. For her, Spielberg’s movie “marked the end of the wall of silence. The thousands of testimonies that his foundation gathered are now available to students, teachers, and researchers.” She teaches young people that bystanders stand next to perpetrators in culpability. In this age of bullying, it is easy to find opportunities to speak out. “We each have the responsibility and power to help others. Express your views to those in authority. Don’t be a bystander, be an upstander.”
Four students from the Bronx High School of Science, where a teacher established a Holocaust Museum & Study Center spoke about how they were affected by the artifacts in the center. An Asian-American young man was particularly drawn to a Torah cover and said it taught him “ to be proud of my own heritage.” Another young man addressed the fact that others, such as Roma, Sinti, gays, and the disabled were also persecuted and put to death during the Holocaust. The students learn about other genocides, and one student concluded “It could happen here, if we let it. It continues to be a dangerous world as long as people don’t do anything about hatred, racism, murder, and genocide, which are universal. But so are compassion and love. Students must be taught the quality of compassion. They are our future leaders.”
The 92nd Street ‘Y’ Woodwind Quintet played a somber “Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano” by Bohuslav Martinu and “Wind Quintet” by Pavel Haas, as well as the theme from Schindler’s List.
By Stephen Tencer