April 19, Holocaust Remembrance Day, falls on the anniversary of the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, when an armored brigade of Nazi SS that was herding its population to death camps paid a heavy price in blood for weeks at the hands of Jewish fighters armed with Molotov cocktails.
January 27, the commemoration day designated by the United Nations General Assembly, is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. These two dates reflect an evolving perception of the Holocaust in our newly inflamed post-September 11 world, from a uniquely Jewish catastrophe to a universal one. As a survivor of Auschwitz, today Honorary Ambassador and Special Envoy of UNESCO for Holocaust education, I am commemorating that tragedy with the Jews of Turkey – a country that has welcomed and protected them from the time of the Spanish Inquisition to Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
My mission is not only to lament the victims, but also to alert world leaders and the public at large to the risk of new catastrophes that may destroy their universe, as they once destroyed mine. For the ashes of Auschwitz speak to us about the present and the future, as well as the past. In the 1930s, when rampant economic and political upheavals unleashed insecurity and fear, popular folly recruited diabolic “saviors.” This is how democracies perished and the hunt for scapegoats began. Since my liberation from Dachau by American GIs, new genocides, ethnic cleansings and other mass atrocities have confirmed that the human capacity for evil knows no bounds. Indeed, that the unthinkable is again possible, with plagues of toxic gas, atomic mushroom clouds and ballistic missiles in the dangerous hands of new despots and fanatics.
Thus, when incendiary demagogues with nuclear ambitions reopen our wounds by calling the Holocaust a “myth,” we the last living survivors, have a visceral obligation to testify that it was both a gruesome reality for us and an existential warning for all mankind of horrors yet to come. But our words must be followed by action, with concrete policies of remembrance and education that can raise public awareness of how such slaughters erupt and how they can be prevented. Today I can attest that this process has begun.
For last year’s commemoration I found myself in Auschwitz at the behest of “Project Aladdin,” launched by the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and UNESCO. Two hundred Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders met in Paris for that pilgrimage, including heads of state, mayors of major capitals, Chief Rabbis, Grand Muftis and Cardinals. In the cursed barbed-wire enclosure of Birkenau, where I once saw the proud ship of civilization go under, where I lost my family and all the children of my school, it fell upon me to bear witness. Surrounded by relics of gas chambers and crematoria, united by common pain and shared human values, we our unlikely assembly transcended all racial, religious and political strife and prayed to the same God.
After that manifestation of solidarity a group of us was invited to testify before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S House of Representatives. There we reiterated the warning that unless we dissipate the abysmal ignorance and distortion of the Holocaust, unite against anti-Semitism, xenophobia and terrorism, and espouse the core moral values inherent in our great creeds - spiritual and secular - the forces of darkness will return to doom our future. But my principal focus was on the promising potential for expanded dialogue, revealed by the encounters in Paris, Auschwitz and Washington. The Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, who was also with us, confirmed that potential with these words: “I came to see for myself the evil humans can do to humans, and to say that those who deny the Holocaust of Auschwitz or the genocide of Srebrenica, are committing genocides themselves.”
True, one swallow does not make a Spring, but all his coreligionists, of every stripe and continent, were as profoundly moved by his declaration and shocked by the palpable evidence of Nazi barbarism, as the rest of us. It was also obvious that they were equally disturbed by the barbarians of today who kill and maim innocents at random, including their own kin. This raises the hope of a more tolerable coexistence between vast, silent majorities of people who don’t consider themselves “sworn enemies.” That “Project Aladdin” is now making available, in cooperation with local institutions, Turkish, Arabic and Iranian versions of Holocaust books like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” films like “Shoah” and other links for people-to-people contacts suggests that the hope is real.
It also suggests that United Nations organizations, especially UNESCO, entrusted with lofty, fundamental responsibilities, must not be derailed from their legitimate, specialized tasks by political or diplomatic skirmishes of an altogether different nature. All the more so in a deteriorating international environment which is pushing us toward fateful crossroads: retreat into a dark age of unmanageable global turmoil, or move forward with new leaps of imagination, innovation and creativity that can revive the enthusiasm and energies of younger generations.
Having experienced in the course of my tortuous odyssey the lowest depths and a few summits of the human condition, I have learned and written that there is a way free of hatred and violence to deal with the intractable challenges of our time. That way calls for collective efforts to liberate the inexhaustible resources of human intelligence, knowledge and compassion that exist in ample measure among peoples of every region, race, color and faith. Developed and made accessible through the precious channels of education, science and culture, these resources can usher in a new era of tolerance, prosperity and peace - before it is too late.
*Awarded U.S. citizenship by a special Act of Congress, Samuel Pisar is an international lawyer in New York, London and Paris, with doctorates from Harvard and the Sorbonne. His books include “Coexistence and Commerce” and “Of Blood and Hope.”