Wed, Jan 26, 2005 - Page 1 News List

UN breaks with tradition, remembers the Holocaust

FACING THE PAST The UN has finally given respect to one of the events that was vital for its formation -- the Holocaust of World War II which decimated a people


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

In comments to the body, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan reversed years of diplomatic silence and 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 UN 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 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"It's a transcendent moment," said Eve Epstein, vice president of the 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."

The UN was created in part because of the hope that the Holocaust would never be 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 long haunted the UN: whether member states have the will to stop genocide. With the atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region, the question was apt.

Wiesel 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 what was 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.

Later on Monday, a photography exhibit opened at UN headquarters featuring images from the death camps, the first time an exhibit about the Holocaust has been shown at the UN.

Officials defied longtime protocol preventing prayers at the UN. The ceremony began with the El Maleh Rachamim, the traditional memorial prayer, and ended with the Israeli national anthem.

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