International Holocaust Remembrance Day 

Ambassador Benno Bättig,

Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

Bern, 29 January 2018

Speaker: Benno Bättig

Mr Gábor Hirsch,

Distinguished ambassadors,

Ladies and gentlemen,

"I contracted several diseases and had festering sores in my mouth, which left me almost unable to eat despite the hunger. […] They tattooed the camp number 'B 14781' on my left forearm. […] On 24 January, we got a nasty surprise: the German soldiers were back in order to destroy the evidence of their crimes. They ordered the Jews to come out. I hid under a straw sack […]. The arrival of the Soviet army on 27 January 1945 saved my life. […] I was 15 years old and weighed just 27 kilos." 

These are the words of Gábor Hirsch, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We are honoured that Mr Hirsch is here with us today and will have the privilege of listening to him later. 

He lives near Zurich and wrote his testimony, which was published in 2010 as part of the 'Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors' series, in German. The 15 volumes of this series, whose publication has been funded in full by the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, have recently been translated into French by school students from the French-speaking part of Switzerland as part of a project launched by the Swiss chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. These important testimonies are thus now available to a large segment of Switzerland's population. 

Access to the memoirs and testimonies of contemporary witnesses is becoming increasingly important. We must unfortunately be prepared for the fact that in the near future there will no longer be any survivors of the Holocaust among us who will be physically and mentally able to still bear witness. Their accounts are central elements of efforts to keep alive the memory of the atrocities of the Holocaust and raise awareness of the consequences of racism, discrimination and antisemitism. 

The translation project 'Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors' is therefore one of many Switzerland has launched or supported as part of its chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The project focuses on young people, education and Holocaust survivors who are living in Switzerland, and survivors who are no longer with us. From the start, our guiding question was how to impart knowledge to enable the present generation and future generations to understand and relate to what people went through during the Holocaust. Actively remembering and honouring, with dignity, the victims of the Holocaust is the responsibility of all of us – all the more so as most young people consider even the fall of the Berlin Wall and the war in the former Yugoslavia to be events that belong to their parents' generation and have no relevance to the present. How distant, then, must the Second World War and the tens of millions of people who were slaughtered in its wake seem to young people today? How can they understand that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in the aftermath and knowledge of this cataclysm in order to serve as a compass for all democracies? 

The Holocaust challenged the very foundations of civilisation, in the heart of Europe, a continent whose citizens believed themselves to be the most advanced civilisation on earth. 

A direct encounter with survivors is one of the most effective ways to ensure that young people today continue to come to grips with the Holocaust and that its significance and importance are not lost on them – or at the very least that they know what happened and what the survivors went through.  Such encounters have been regularly taking place in Switzerland since the 1990s, and in some cases earlier. Let us all do our utmost to ensure that such encounters can take place for as long as possible. 

This much is certain: to confront the experiences of Holocaust survivors, young people need professional guidance, but even more importantly, they need to be approached in a language that speaks to them and reaches them. That is precisely the aim of new web app 'Fleeing the Holocaust', which also gives voice to young people: they conduct video interviews with survivors, collect additional material on the Holocaust, and discuss what they have learned among themselves. This web app is an international project developed with financial support from the Swiss chairmanship of the IHRA in Lucerne. 

Let me conclude these remarks by sharing with you some reflections on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In a few weeks I will hand over the chairmanship of the IHRA to my Italian colleague, Ambassador Sandro de Bernardin. 

It is a particular strength of the IHRA that it brings together experts and government representatives from more than 30 countries. Government representatives provide the framework and financial support, while experts from a wide range of fields provide and share their scientific expertise. The IHRA would not be able to carry out its work without the knowledge and input of these experts. 

We also operate according to this principle in Switzerland. When Switzerland joined the IHRA in 2004, we created an advisory group consisting of dozens of experts. During this chairmanship year, I have been very impressed by the number and quality of activities and projects that have been launched in many regions of our multilingual country. While the IHRA is still not as well-known as it should be and some of its activities have not received the media coverage they deserve, what matters most is that these activities have a solid local foundation because they are the result of grass-root initiatives undertaken by people determined to make a difference. 

For the first time in its history, the IHRA has – under Swiss chairmanship – adopted a strategy and defined priorities. Its top priority for the next five years is to safeguard the record, particularly archives, testimonies and historic sites, and to counter Holocaust denial and distortion. 

This opportunity to listen to Gábor Hirsch speak about his experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau is perfectly in line with the IHRA priority of safeguarding the record and of keeping the memories of Holocaust survivors alive. 

In times like ours, when the Holocaust is receding into distant history and many IHRA member countries are experiencing a resurgence of demagoguery and violence in word and deed, it is our duty as experts, as government representatives and as human beings, to take a stand against Holocaust denial and to ensure that it never happens again. 

I would like to cite from a speech by Ivan Lefkovits, himself a survivor of Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen, to illustrate why it is our duty. He said:

“There seem to be at least two reasons for trying to keep the memory alive.  First, those of us who can tell what has happened owe it to those six millions who cannot. Second, only if we know what happened, can we prevent it from happening again.” 

With only a few survivors remaining among us, it will be the duty of this and future generations to keep this memory, the memory of the Holocaust, alive and true.

Last update 29.01.2022


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