This week at the United Nations General Assembly’s 71st session, the World Jewish Restitution Organization engaged in a series of meetings with world government leaders. Against the backdrop of the iconic UN Headquarters building erected in the aftermath of the Second World War, and coming soon after the passing of Elie Wiesel, who was for so many years the living symbol of the Holocaust, the power of memory was at the forefront of our consciousness as we met with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers of countries in which the Shoah took place.
Indeed, it was only 11 years ago that the UN General Assembly, for the first time in its history, held a special session to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. The event was to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz where 1 million Jews were killed.
At the 2005 special UN gathering, Wiesel, the late Nobel Laureate and an Auschwitz survivor, reminded world leaders of his role as an eyewitness to the unprecedented evil of the Holocaust, and the millions of Jews who were humiliated, tormented, tortured and murdered throughout Europe. He reminded these UN leaders of “a crime of unprecedented cruelty in which all segments of government participated.”
“There are no words to describe what the victims felt when death was the norm and life a miracle,” said Wiesel, who died last July at 87. “Still, whether you know it or not [this] memory is part of yours.”
We are now at a crucial juncture in our remembrance of the Holocaust.
With new technologies and cutting edge research, we are finding out more information than ever before about the scope of the Nazi genocide. In only the last few weeks, the respected television news show “60 Minutes” was nominated for an Emmy Award for its report on the identification of previously unknown sites of mass killings during the Holocaust.
Yet, at the same time we are learning more about the Holocaust, Holocaust survivors in their 80s and 90s are dying.
That’s why 71 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must press the case for justice, compassion and restitution in the greatest theft of property and culture of a people in recorded history.
During the meetings with top government officials from seven Eastern and Central European countries we reminded them of the unfinished work that must be done to address the immoral seizing of the homes, businesses and other cherished properties of millions of people during the Holocaust.
We met to remind them of the international consensus of 47 countries who endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration “that every effort be made to rectify the consequence of wrongful property seizures … which were part of the persecution of these innocent people and groups.”
And we met with them to try to ensure that they do not forget their responsibilities to Holocaust survivors, to their own citizens, and to history.
To be sure, these individual meetings with a diverse group of government officials come with their own set of issues and complexities.
Since the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, some of these countries took up the challenge of returning or providing compensation for former Jewish property. Some took partial steps. And some did virtually nothing.
So fully understanding the importance of remembering, we continue to remind these nations that justice and compassion for Holocaust survivors and their heirs cannot be forgotten by us.
And must not be forgotten by them.