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In rare move, U.N. reflects on Holocaust

The United Nations broke with years of protocol and commemorated the 60-year anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, directly linking its own founding with the end of the Holocaust in some of the strongest language ever.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The United Nations broke with years of protocol and commemorated the 60-year anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, directly linking its own founding with the end of the Holocaust in some of the strongest language ever.

The U.N. General Assembly marked the anniversary with a special session Monday, the first such session in its history dedicated to the Holocaust, and a watershed event for a body that has been accused of an anti-Semitic agenda.

In comments to the body, Secretary-General Kofi Annan directly recognized Jews as the chief victims of the Holocaust, not just one group among many that suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

“An entire civilization, which had contributed far beyond its numbers to the cultural and intellectual riches of Europe and the world, was uprooted, destroyed, laid waste,” Annan said.

One U.N. observer said the commemoration could be seen as being linked to Annan’s new efforts to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace with the election of a new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to replace the late Yasser Arafat.

“It’s a transcendent moment,” said Eve Epstein, vice president of National Committee on American Foreign Policy. “People have been optimistic about what’s been happening in the Middle East and I think the secretary-general has been doing everything he can to build trust so that the peace process can move forward.”

Between 1 million and 1.5 million prisoners — most of them Jews — perished in gas chambers or died of starvation and disease at Auschwitz. Overall, 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

U.N. born out of Holocaust's horror
The United Nations was created in part because of world leaders’ hope that it could help make sure the Holocaust was never repeated. That fact had largely been ignored for years, until Annan stated the fact starkly.

“The United Nations must never forget that it was created as a response to the evil of Nazism, or that the horror of the Holocaust helped to shape its mission,” he said.

World leaders and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a Nobel peace prize winner, also wrestled with the question that has haunted the United Nations: whether its member states have the will to stop future genocide. With mass atrocities in Sudan’s Darfur region, the question took on new poignancy.

Wiesel, speaking of himself as the Jewish witness, said he knew it was too late for the victims of the Holocaust, but not for “today’s children, ours and yours.”

“It is for their sake alone that we bear witness,” he said. “It is for their sake that we are duty-bound to denounce anti-Semitism, racism and religious or ethnic hatred.”

In an institution where minor acts are sometimes laden with enormous symbolism, there were plenty of telling signs: Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was the first national official to speak before the General Assembly. He pointed to the strength of movements denying the Holocaust, asking if there was anything worse than the destruction of an entire race.

“There is something worse: to do all this and then deny, to do all this and then take from the victims and their children and grandchildren the legitimacy of their grief,” he said.

Exhibit, prayers mark anniversary
Later Monday, a photography exhibit opened at U.N. headquarters featuring images from the death camps, the first time an exhibit about the Holocaust is being shown at the United Nations.

U.N. officials defied longtime protocol against allowing prayers at the United Nations. The ceremony began with the El Maleh Rachamim, the traditional memorial prayer, and ended with the Israeli national anthem.

The decision to do so was made by Mark Malloch Brown, the new chief of staff, under orders from Annan, according to an internal document obtained by The Associated Press.

Just one Arab Middle East country — Jordan — delivered a speech commemorating the liberation, but more crucially, Arab leaders did not try to block the commemoration. In 2003, Ireland withdrew a General Assembly resolution condemning anti-Semitism because of Muslim and Arab opposition.

Still, while 138 nations had said they supported the commemoration, few Arab nations attended.

Late last year, U.S. Ambassador John Danforth requested a commemorative session on Jan. 24, three days before a similar event in the former Auschwitz death camp in Poland to mark its liberation by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz appeared to make a veiled reference to Iraq during his speech, saying that though leaders had agreed to set aside politics for the commemoration, they must do so with “a unanimous resolve to give real meaning to those words ‘never forget.”’

“Last Thursday, as he began his second term in office, President George Bush expressed his belief that our nation’s interests cannot be separated from the aspirations of others to be free from tyranny and oppression,” Wolfowitz said.