An eternal reminder to us all – NZ PM on Holocaust Remembrance Day

January 28, 2020 by Miriam Bell
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It is critical to tell and retell the stories of those who perished in the Holocaust, and of those who survived, to fight against the rise of antisemitism and to ensure that such a genocide never happens again.

Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern with survivors

This emphasis on the importance of survivors’ stories was one of the key messages to emerge from a powerful and moving ceremony held to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, at the Mt Eden War Memorial in Auckland, last night.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke at the event and began her speech by acknowledging the immeasurable loss and pain experienced by the Jewish community around the world.

It is unfathomable that each of the six candles lit at the candle lighting ceremony, which began the event, represents one million lives lost, she said.

“It’s a horrific reminder of what happens when extremist ideology is unchecked and shows us what humans, unfortunately, are capable of when left unchecked. “

Anti-Semitism has no place in our global society, she continued. “It is an assault against our shared humanity. And yet we find ourselves in a world that seems to have forgotten the horrors of history.

“New reports of direct attacks targeting the Jewish community are still frequent. Lives continue to be lost, sites of worship continue to be damaged. Bullying, discrimination and fear continue to be perpetuated.”

As an example she pointed to the defacing of Wellington’s Temple Sinai with antisemitic graffiti just last week.

This is not the legacy of a nation or the legacy of a world that has learnt and understands fully the impact of the holocaust, Ardern said.

“And so the work [to educate and inform on the Holocaust] must continue here and abroad.

“Holocaust Remembrance events around the world are an opportunity to reflect and learn, while the work of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand helps us to become the nation that we aspire to be.”

Along with the work of the Holocaust Centre, Ardern acknowledged the work of Holocaust survivors Bob Narev, who MC-ed the event, and his wife Freda.

She thanked them for their generosity and commitment to New Zealand and for telling their stories over and over to ensure we never forget.

“But it’s incumbent on all of us [to remember]. It’s not just up to the Jewish community to tell these stories.”

Building up dialogue between different faiths and groups of people to combat antisemitism and racism is critical. Further, hate speech in the name of nationalism or other causes is not welcome in New Zealand, she said.

“Devastatingly, we were reminded of that last year in Christchurch with March 15th and I want to acknowledge the way in which the Jewish community reached out to our Muslim communities to offer a range of support after the attacks in March. Thank you.”

Ardern finished by saying that on Holocaust Remembrance Day we gather to remember our shared humanity and we look to those who suffered as an eternal reminder to us all.

The ceremony also featured presentations by Holocaust Centre chair Deborah Hart, Auckland City Councillor Pippa Coom [representing Auckland Mayor Phil Goff], and video messages from Christine Leunens [author of “Caging Skies”] and Taika Waititi [director of “JoJo Rabbit”].

But it was second generation representatives Deb Filler and Helen Schamroth, who both retold the survival stories of their fathers, and recent March of the Living participant, Reuven Gooding [speaking of his reflections on that experience], who evoked the most powerful emotions.

Filler’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Yiddish, with which the audience joined in [including the Prime Minister’s security detail] was particularly poignant and brought tears to many eyes.

The ceremony was one marked with sadness over the Holocaust and all that it represents, as well as concern over the current rise in antisemitism. But it was also one that left a feeling of hope and belief that there is good in humanity.

Holocaust Remembrance Day events were also held in Wellington and Christchurch on January 27 and a Holocaust Remembrance event took place in Tauranga on January 25.

In the lead up to the actual day, the government was hit by criticism after it neglected to send a representative to the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in Israel last week.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters claimed the government only received the invitation from Ministry officials a couple of weeks out from the event and cited security concerns.

But Opposition MP Gerry Brownlee, from the National Party, described the non-attendance as disgraceful, while National Party leader Simon Bridges questioned whether antisemitism was behind New Zealand’s absence.

Instead the government sent its ambassador to Poland, Mary Thurston, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp in Poland.

And, besides Ardern, a number of government ministers attended Holocaust Remembrance Day events around New Zealand.

Ardern was accompanied at the Auckland event by Minister of Ethnic Communities Jenny Salesa, while Finance Minister Grant Robertson hosted a Holocaust Remembrance Day event at Parliament.

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