New Zealanders gather to remember the Holocaust

January 29, 2021 by  
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New Zealand, one of few countries in a Covid-ravaged world still able to have large gatherings for the observance of United Nations International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, saw commemorations take place around the country in major centres including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, as well as in Hamilton and Napier.

Deputy Prime Minister Hon Grant Robertson addresses the Holocaust Survivors and families in the Grand Hall of Parliament.                             (Photo Simon Woolf)

A significant statement was made by the Governor-General, the local representative of New Zealand’s Queen.

The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy reminded the 400-strong audience at the Auckland War Memorial Museum of a Māori proverb: Haere whakamua, titiro whakamuri. (We must walk into the future with our eyes wide open to the past).

We should all acknowledge and learn from our own country’s shameful history with Jewish refugees,” she said. “Between 1936 and 1938, when European Jews were frantically searching for sanctuary from Nazi persecution, New Zealand rejected some 1,731 formal applications from them to immigrate here.  That was over 70% of the applications we received.  We also actively discouraged thousands more from even applying.”

The Governor-General, who is also Patron of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, reaffirmed that organisation’s goal of ensuring every student in New Zealand learns about the Holocaust, and that casual offensive remarks have no place in our society.

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, another keynote speaker, spoke of the positive impact refugees have made on New Zealand society.

“The dark forces that we have seen over the last few years, with the rise of illiberalism, extremism, authoritarianism, nationalism, populism, antisemitism and racism, with democracies and democratic values faltering and, in some cases failing, have gained frightening momentum in the last year,” said Juliet Moses, the gathering’s MC and spokesperson for the New Zealand Jewish Council.

“History has taught us that it is conditions like these that are most dangerous for the Jewish people.” She asked the audience to think about how we apply “Never again” as a moral code.

A similar strong statement was made by the Deputy Prime Minister, Hon Grant Robertson, speaking in Wellington at the Parliamentary reception for Holocaust Remembrance Day. He said to maintain both our international reputation and our self-respect, New Zealand must act with determination against racism and antisemitism, and do better on social inclusion for refugees.

With the 93-year-old donor Paul Seideman looking on, the Deputy PM presented prizes to winners of the Paul Seideman Composition Award. Czech-born Seideman was sent as a teenager first to the Lodz Ghetto and later to Auschwitz and other camps.

Later, the prize winners – aged from 12 to 18 – read their essays about how resilience helped Holocaust survivors throughout the events from 1933-1945 to the audience.

Israel’s Ambassador-Designate to New Zealand [l] Ran Yaakoby

A service at the Holocaust Memorial in the Jewish cemetery at Makara, outside Wellington, preceded the Parliamentary reception. In blustery conditions (conforming to the capital’s reputation as “Windy Wellington) that sent kippot flying, the audience heard from Mayor of Wellington Andy Foster about the importance of Holocaust remembrance and how Wellington had benefited greatly from Jewish refugees. Spontaneous applause followed his reference to the appropriateness of the German and Israeli ambassadors sitting next to each other.

Ambassador-designate Ran Yaakoby said in his address: “Dear New Zealand Holocaust survivors: your strength of spirit built houses and planted trees, your heroism ensured a brighter future for your children and grandchildren, where they could grow and live in this safe and free country. May the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and those who waged war on Nazism, be forever in our hearts.”

The arrival of Jewish Displaced Persons and the major contributions they and their descendants have made to New Zealand’s development since World War II remained a strong theme in Christchurch, Hamilton and Napier too.

In Christchurch, the South Island city heavily damaged by the earthquake in 2011 and hugely affected – as was all New Zealand – by the Mosque massacres in 2019, the Holocaust commemoration took place in the open at the site of the city’s Peace Bell, with the Mayor and Members of Parliament in attendance.

Provincial centres Hamilton and Napier also held commemorations, the latter for the first time. This was notable for a city with no established Jewish community. Mayors and Members of Parliament were present and spoke.

A noticeable (and heartwarming) feature of all five public commemorations was the visible presence of faith, interfaith and multicultural representatives, including members of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ).

Report from David Zwartz and Nadine Rubin Nathan

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