Ahead of the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination and concentration camp, UNESCO, in partnership with the WJC, leaders from across the world, and other institutions, hosted a virtual commemoration event on Monday honoring the victims and survivors of the Holocaust.
The ceremony also marked the opening of the “Lest We Forget” photo exhibition, the largest display of portraits documenting the stories of survivors of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes around the world. The exhibition, located within the UNESCO building in Paris as well as all around the exterior fence, was created by photographer Luigi Toscano, and supported by the Permanent Delegations of Austria, France, Germany, and the European Union to UNESCO, as well as the World Jewish Congress, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), and several other institutions.
The forum, hosted by Karel Fracapane of UNESCO, featured remarks by leaders from across the world, including a closing address by WJC President Ronald S. Lauder, who underscored that that “vigilance and remembrance, along with education are the best way for the world never to forget this crime.” Lauder added that he was proud of the WJC’s partnership with UNESCO creating AboutHolocaust.org, a website dedicated to educating the public about the Holocaust. Lauder also spoke of the heroism of the survivors, saying, “After everything that happened to them, after everything taken from them, their families murdered, these people displayed the most amazing courage the world has ever seen. They never sought vengeance. They walked out of those gates, they married and had children, creating families. Creating life! in the face of death they created life.”
Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay said in her opening remarks that it is a “deeply moving experience to welcome the exhibition,” and thanking the World Jewish Congress for being one of UNESCO’s “most steadfast partners.” Speaking of the necessity to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, Azoulay said, “It is our individual and collective responsibility to remember. To remember all those whose faces never grew old, to remember them each, everyone one of them,” adding that "though the faces of Survivors we can see the faces of the millions who were murdered.”
German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas spoke of the beauty of the exhibit, saying that “the eyes look at us. Nothing is said, but we could almost hear the voices of the women and men portrayed in the pictures. They appeal to us not to look away, not to be indifferent." He added that the exhibit is “much more than art. It is a reminder never to bury the past and the investment in a more peaceful future.”
Maas urged the audience to prepare for a world without Holocaust survivors, saying, “their testimony lives on in these images. It is our responsibility as democrats as fellow human beings to preserve it. We owe that to the victims to whose eyes we are looking at today, and we owe that to our children for whom the memory of our dark past holds the promise of a brighter future.”
Karoline Edtstadler, Austrian Federal Minister for the European Union, said that the “devastating legacy” of the destruction of European Jewry, “obliges us to remember and to make every attempt to prevent such horrible crimes from ever happening again.” Edtstadler praised the exhibit saying, it “allows the broader public to engage with survivors in a personal, emotional and tangible and thus relate directly to the terrible suffering of the victims of the Holocaust.”
Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, French State Secretary to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, also praised the exhibit saying it “sends a powerful message” and “illustrates the very tangible dimension of Nazi barbarity, which was not executed abstractly but targeted men, women and children, each with their own story and singularity.” Lemoyne noted that exhibit creation comes at an ominous time when more and more survivors are passing away, making Holocaust remembrance even more difficult. He concluded his remarks by saying that “we owe it to all the victims to work towards this remembrance.”
Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Representative for Human Rights, spoke about the rise of antisemitism and hatred during the coronavirus pandemic and the attempts to delegitimize the Holocaust. Speaking on behalf of the EU, Gilmore condemned Holocaust denial, calling it “insulting to the memory of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust. We are committed to fulfill our collective responsibility to ensure that “never again” are not just words but are actions.” Concluding his remarks, Gilmore pledged that the EU “will continue to work with all UN member states within the UN forum, including UNESCO to maintain effective remembrance policies, to combat violent extremism, to protect historic religious sites and to promote education, documentation and research about the Holocaust.”
Peter Kurtz, Mayor of Mannheim, Germany, spoke about the need to defend democracy from the rise of right-wing extremist parties, as well as against the emboldened anti-democratic, anti-liberal, and anti-European forces taking root in society. He also noted the importance of preserving a culture of remembrance in our countries and in our cities. Kurtz noted that before the Nazi regime came to power in Mannheim, the city was home to one of the liveliest and strongest Jewish communities in Germany, and concluded his remarks calling for the world to remember the victims of the Holocaust as their “neighbors, colleagues, friends and family.”
Luigi Toscano, the photographer who created the exhibit, also took part in the ceremony, repeating a message from a Holocaust survivor named Suzanne, who told him “if we forget the past, we are damaged to repeat it.” Toscano called for unity, saying “In these days it is necessary for us to stand up together against antisemitism, racism, and any kind of hatred.”