Speech by Madame Simone Veil,
President of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Time cannot help; it is always the same emotion that takes over when I speak about the Shoah. Like all my comrades, I believe it is a duty to constantly explain to the younger generations, our nations’ public opinion-makers and to our politicians how six million men and women died, including one and one half million children, simply because they were born Jewish.
Thank you for inviting me, it is a great honour for me to be able to share my thoughts with you in this symbolic place. In fact, this institution was born out of the ruins and ashes of the Second World War. We speak not of an image, but of a reality: it is in a European country, long admired for its philosophies and its musicians, that the decision was made to gas and burn millions of men, women and children in crematory ovens. Their ashes also rest at the bottom of graves in the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and elsewhere that the Jews had to dig with their own hands before being sent into them by the bullets of the Einsatzgruppen and then burned there, all traces of the crimes needing to be erased.
I also wish to thank those who produced the exhibit on the fate and suffering of tens of thousands of Roma and Sinti who were rounded and holed up before being exterminated. It took a long time for people to recognize that a great number of them were exterminated in Auschwitz and elsewhere.
Because I can remember 2 August 1944, when the Roma and Sinti, who until then had lived with their families at Auschwitz, were gassed, I had the chance, years later, in 1980, as President of the European Parliament and invited by the German authorities to visit Bergen-Belsen, to be surprised that nothing had been done to recognize these tragic events. I thus stressed the need to correct this oversight.
Five years ago, the European Council decided to organize a European Day in Memory of the Holocaust and for the prevention of crimes against humanity. The Council selected the 27th of January, the day of the arrival of a unit of Soviet soldiers at Auschwitz. As of the 18th and 19th of January, most survivors had left the numerous camps and kommandos embedded around Auschwitz.
This is how more than 60,000 deported men and women were forced to walk in the snow for tens of kilometres, and for some, hundreds of kilometres, without being allowed to slow down or they would be executed on the spot. Red Army soldiers, upon arrival at Auschwitz, found only ghosts, a few thousand dying, terrified, left behind in the absence of time and because the SS thought that hunger, thirst, the cold or disease would do their job quickly. A few were left who had taken the risk of staying behind and hiding in hope of being rescued.
On the first of November 2005, the UN made the decision to institute an « International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust ».
With this decision, which today involves the entire world, the United Nations remained faithful to its founding principles, particularly to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as to the Resolution adopted in December 1948 to prevent, fight and prosecute all genocides. The United Nations also made sure to remind us of the specific and universal character of the Shoah, planned extermination, aiming to eliminate an entire people, the Jewish people. This objective was largely attained, thus flouting the very foundations of our humanity.
This is why it seems symbolic to me that on 24 January 2005, the twenty-eighth special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, was presided over not by a European, but by Mr. Jean Ping, Ambassador of Gabon, whom I would now like to thank.
Mr. Secretary-General, distinguished Ambassadors, you must know that for those of us deported, there is not one day that goes by that we do not think of the Shoah. More than the beatings, the dogs that harassed us, the exhaustion, the hunger, the cold and fatigue, it is the humiliations destined to deprive us of all human dignity that, to this day, remain the worst in our memories. We no longer had names, just a number tattooed on the arm serving as identification, and we were dressed in rags.
What haunts us first and foremost is the memory of those we were brutally separated from upon our arrival in the camp and who, we were told by the kapos in the following hours, were led directly to the gas chambers. But the Auschwitz camp was not the worst. Numerous trains coming from all over Europe were headed towards Sobibor, Maidanek or Treblinka, where, with the exception of the « Sonder Commandos », who were in charge of leading the Jews to the gas chambers, all those arriving, whatever their age, were immediately exterminated.
It was in the month of April 1944 that, with my mother and sister, I was deported to Auschwitz. After spending one week in Drancy, where all French Jews were grouped together, we were piled, for three terrible days, into sealed animal wagons, practically without food, without water and without knowing our destination. My father and brother, also arrested in Nice, like us, were deported to Kaunas, in Lithuania, in a convoy of 850 men. It was the only convoy from Drancy to Lithuania. Only about 20 of these 850 men survived and we never found out the fate of the other men, including my father and brother.
We arrived at Auschwitz in the middle of the night. Everything was done to terrify us: blinding searchlights, the barking dogs of the SS, the deported dressed like convicts that dragged us from the wagons.
Dr. Mengele, the SS master of selection, then designated, by a simple gesture, those who would enter the camp and those who, supposedly tired, were led towards trucks that would drive them directly to the gas chambers. Miraculously, the three of us entered the camp where we were assigned landscaping jobs that proved to be mostly useless. We just needed to be kept busy, but the SS made sure the work was as painful as possible, and, when we didn't pick up a large enough rock, we were sure to have the dogs biting at our heels.
We worked more than twelve hours per day. We were barely fed. But our fate was not the worst. In April and May 1944, 435,000 Jews arrived from Hungary; in order to facilitate their extermination, the railroad into the camp had been extended to get closer to the gas chambers; as soon as they got off the train the majority of them were brought there. For those of us who saw them arrive and knew what awaited them, it was a vision of horror. I still remember their faces, these women carrying their children, these masses ignorant of their destiny marching towards the gas chambers. I was in a Block situated in the first row very close to the ramp where the trains arrived. This is the worse thing I have ever seen. We, who believed we had no more tears, cried. And today, when I think of the deportation, every day, I often think of the Hungarians.
In July, we were lucky, my mother, my sister and I, to go to a small camp where we were among fewer people, and where the work and discipline were less harsh. We stayed there until 18 January 1945. While we were already hearing the Soviet canons and catching glimpses of the glow of the front lines, we asked ourselves if the SS would kill us before the arrival of the Russians or if they would just leave us there. On the night of the 18th we left the camp, forced to march for more than 70 kilometres under the menace of the SS rifles: these were the « death marches», where so many of our comrades succumbed. After two days of waiting in Gleiwitz, in a huge camp where there were approximately sixty thousand people coming from all over the region, we were piled into open air wagons, crossing through Czechoslovakia, Austria, then Germany, before arriving at the Bergen-Belsen camp, located near Hanover. In these wagons exposed to the winds, nearly half were dead of cold and hunger before arrival.
At Bergen-Belsen, there were neither gas chambers nor selections: but typhus, the cold, and hunger that killed, in just a few months, tens of thousands of deported that the Nazis did not want to leave behind.
Finally, on 15 April, we were liberated by the British army. I can still see the horrified look of the soldiers who, from their tanks, were discovering the bodies amassed on the side of the road and the staggering skeletons that we had become. No cries of joy on our part -only silence and tears. I thought of my mother, who had died one month before of exhaustion and typhus. But over the course of the weeks that followed the liberation, because of lack of medical care, many more of us died.
Liberated on 15 April 1945, my sister and I returned to France only at the end of May. Apparently the decision-makers feared that we might introduce an epidemic of typhus in our country.
But what to say about the return?
First of all, on a personal level, I would say that we always hoped that my sister, who was in the resistance, would not be arrested. On the eve of our return, I learned that she had been deported, but luckily, I soon learned that she had survived; she had even returned before us.
The war had just ended, France had been liberated for months. There had been legal proceedings against those who had collaborated with the Germans, but the majority of the French people and the government wanted to forget the past. Nobody wanted to listen to talk of the deportations, of what we had seen and lived through. As for the Jews who had not been deported, that is to say, with regards to France, three quarters of them, the majority could not stand listening to us. Others preferred not knowing. It is true that we were not aware of the horrible nature of our discourse. Thus it is among ourselves, those of us who had been deported, that we spoke of the camp. These bonds, considering that there aren’t many of us left, always lived on, and I must say that there are between us some very unique bonds. But these are bonds that make us speak not of our families, not of our present day lives, but always of the camp. It nourishes our spirit and I would say even our chattering, using this word because in an extraordinary way, when we speak of the camp, we are obligated to laugh in order to not cry.
The Shoah was not just in Auschwitz: it covered the entire European continent in blood. The process of dehumanization brought to term, it inspires an inexhaustible reflection on the conscience and dignity of men, the worst is always possible.
Although we had made the pledge, so often expressed, of « never again », our warnings were in vain. After the Cambodian massacres, it is Africa that, for the last ten years, has paid the greatest tribute to the follies of genocide. After Rwanda, we see, in Darfur, the waging of death and devastation. It is a tragic death toll: two hundred thousand dead and nearly two million refugees chased away from their homes. We know this. But how to intervene? How to put an end to this barbarism?
After thinking that it might be preferable to let the Organization of African Unity take control of the situation, it seems to me that the United Nations should now intervene. For the last four years I have presided over the Fund for Victims of Crimes Against Humanity created by the International Criminal Court. I consult with The Hague on what can possibly be done to stop these crimes, this violence, and the drastic population displacement it creates. We know that certain NGOs succeed, by taking great risks upon themselves, in rescuing these men and women; but this is very little compared to the suffering and despair of these populations.
I know that it is presently for you, Mr. Secretary-General, a priority case, and of this I am overjoyed.
I cannot help but to presently bring up those who today say that the Holocaust never happened, who deny the reality of the Shoah and call for the destruction of Israel. We now know the extent to which a nuclear-armed Iran is truly worrisome and how urgent it is for this country to return to the bosom of the international community by respecting the laws established by the United Nations and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to which it is a signatory.
The creation of a Palestinian State next to an Israeli State, each living in peace within its borders, according to terms of a negotiation, should put an end to the campaigns waged against the existence of Israel.
At the core of radical Islam are calls, profoundly worrisome, for the destruction of Israel, the ancestral land of the Jews that became a land of refuge for the survivors of the Shoah. In saying that the Shoah is a lie perpetuated by the Jews to justify the creation of Israel, they are attempting to justify their call for the destruction of Israel. This denial of the Holocaust, utilized purely for political gain of which those who broadcast it are aware, allows them to justify their efforts to put an end to the State of Israel. This new denial truly worries me as it finds substantial resonance with fanatic and ignorant spirits, and, notably, because of the new communication technologies, with the young who become convinced that the Shoah effectively never occurred despite all proof to the contrary. We now wish that the revealing of and publicity surrounding the historical record contained in the Arolsen archives will allow them to be convinced, if they are willing to believe the archives.
Facing the question of the memory of the Shoah and that of the existence of the State of Israel, the international community, like our States, must assume its responsibility. It must also take the necessary measures against other genocides, which must be identified and whose victims must be heard. Those who have committed or commit mass crimes must be judged and sanctioned.
I know, Mr. Secretary-General, how much these situations mean to you. I know that you are firmly engaged in finding solutions so that the resolutions and principles of the United Nations will finally be respected and applied in all conflict situations.
But beyond the States and the institutions, there remains the share of responsibility that falls on each of us and I would like to relate to you an example that is close to my heart. Last 18 January, upon my suggestion, the President of France, Jacques Chirac, paid, at the Panthéon, homage to the Righteous of France. The « Righteous » are millions of non-Jewish men and women honoured by the Institute Yad Vashem of Jerusalem for having saved, during the Second World War, Jews from deportation. In France, 76,000 Jews were deported. There were 300,000 Jews in France, which means that three quarters of them were saved. They owe it to the thousands of French citizens who helped them and who embodied courage, generosity and solidarity.
If I mention the Righteous, it is because I am convinced that there will always be men and women, of all origins and in all countries, capable of doing what is right and just. Based on the example of the Righteous, I would like to believe that moral strength and individual conscience can win out.
In conclusion, and rejoicing over the fact that last Friday, the resolution condemning Holocaust denial was so overwhelmingly approved, I whole heartedly wish that this day, created by the United Nations, will inspire in all men and women throughout the world the respect for one another, the rejection of violence, of anti-Semitism, of racism and hatred, as well as all other forms of discrimination.
On a more solemn note, I would like to say once again that the Shoah, if it is « our » memory, it is « your » heritage.