Commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz and UN International Holocaust Memorial Day

January 28, 2016 by David Sokol
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The 71st anniversary of the Commemoration of the Liberation of Auschwitz and the United Nations International Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration has been held at the Sydney Jewish Museum…addressed by the Governor of NSW and Auschwitz survivor Olga Horak.

Governor David Hurley, Olga Horak, Hurley and Gus Lehrer

Governor David Hurley, Olga Horak, Linda Hurley and Gus Lehrer

Governor David Hurley’s keynote address was a profoundly personal recollection of the trips that he and his wife have made to Germany and Poland where they visited the Auschwitz concentration camp site in August 2014. His Excellency spoke of his intense reaction to standing at the front gate of the camp as a curious tourist but after only a few minutes feeling that “this place is evil – it does not deserve to be photographed”. He spoke of the concerns that, in the midst of saying atrocities like the Holocaust should never happen again, there are over 400,000 people affected in Syria at the moment. So the concern is that we have not learnt to stop these people-against-people conflicts from re-occurring. But the Governor, in his own speech, made many references to the strength and the plight of the survivors and it was clear that he, along with the rest of the capacity audience, had been deeply moved by the talk given by Olga Horak,  who spoke earlier in the evening, and he even suggested that his talk was “really just faint echoes supporting your message tonight”.

Olga, who has spoken so many times on behalf of the Australian Holocaust survivors, shared her detailed experiences and observations of impact of the World War and the Holocaust. She spoke about seeing Jews being herded onto the streets and then ridiculed, humiliated and robbed of human dignity. She said: “there were no quiet moments, there were no better days, every second of every minute was unbearable, yet very few of us tried to take our own lives”. Olga went on to talk about how high the will to live was even under those horrible conditions. Even at age 17 she remembers talking about the challenge to retain her human spirit. Because of the shortage of water, she would wash herself with snow and because of the shortage of food she would talk fancifully about food with others in the camp believing that just talking and fantasising about food would fill the vacuum in their stomachs. Olga received a standing ovation from all in the room at the conclusion of her speech.

95-yr-old Auschwitz survivor Eddie Jaku lights a memorial candle

95-yr-old Auschwitz survivor Eddie Jaku lights a memorial candle

There were other distinguished speakers who gave short talks during the evening, each building on the symbolism at the beginning of the evening where six candles, each lit by a survivor, represented the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Deputy Chief of Mission of Israel, Anat Sultan-Dadon, spoke not only about the importance of Jewish commemoration and acknowledging that many countries and states in the Western world recognise the Holocaust and commemorate the significance of this day there are ongoing challenges that require confrontation of holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and denial of the right of Jewish people to self-determination in their historical land. She spoke of the need for ongoing education of younger people and exposing Holocaust deniers.

As the evening built towards the keynote address, Christopher Woodthorpe, Director UN Information Centre for Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific, came from Canberra to deliver a message from the UN Secretary General, which talked about the principles of human dignity and rights, and how the UN has undertaken outreach education programs to ensure that stories of the past are not forgotten, including the stories of Holocaust survivors. He urged everyone to denounce political and religious ideologies that set people against people and for all to speak out against anti-Semitism.

His Excellency was introduced to the room by the President of the Museum and very newly appointed Member of the Order of Australia, Professor Gus Lehrer who spoke about the museum and provided a detailed biography of the keynote speaker.

The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was the President of AAHS&D, Peter Wayne, who not introduced each speaker but also shared his own family experience of the Holocaust, and his final task of the evening was to introduce survivor, Yvonne Engelmann, who symbolically passed the Legacy of Memory to her grandson, Jared, who then spoke about the pride and love he has for his grandparents and their story, and talked about the responsibility he has accepted to ensuring that stories from the Holocaust continue to be told and passed onto his generation.

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