23rd January 2012 at 6pm

Oireachtas colleagues, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen

Allied soldiers arrived at the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp sixty seven years ago this week, that is, on the 27th January 1945.  It had become the largest graveyard of the Jewish people in history.  An estimated 1.1 to 1.3 million people were exterminated there,  90% of them Jewish men, women and children. Others exterminated included Roma families, people with disabilities, homosexuals, prisoners of conscience and religious faith.

Nothing could prepare the camps liberators for what they witnessed in Auschwitz. The remnants of the gas chambers and the crematoria; the mounds of bodies; the stench of death; the piles of clothes; of teeth; of childrens’ shoes and barely living skeletal survivors; the speaking bones who greeted their arrival.  By the war’s end, it was estimated that 6 million Jews had been exterminated by the Nazi killing machine in pursuit of the objective of a Judenfrei world.  If Hitler had achieved his objectives no Jewish community in Europe would have been exempt from the Nazi slaughter, not even those  resident in neutral Ireland.  In Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a map of Europe prepared by Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the extermination policy, includes the estimated 4,000 members of the then Irish Jewish community targeted for extermination.  Clearly, had Germany succeeded in invading Britain, our proclaimed war time neutrality would have provided no protection for the small Irish Jewish community nor presented any real barrier to a German invasion.  

It is of vital importance that we and future generations remember and learn from the horrors of the past to ensure they are not repeated in the future.  In his book "The Drowned and the Saved"  Primo Levi writes "human memory is a marvellous but fallacious instrument. This is a threadbare truth, known not only to psychologists but also to anyone who has paid attention to the behaviour of those who surround him or even to his own behaviour.  The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone;  not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change or even increase by incorporating extraneous features."

Despite everything witnessed, the accounts of survivors and the voluminous records maintained by Germany itself of the Nazi killing machine and the many Holocaust Memorials and museums worldwide, there are now too many in Europe who know very little of the horrors perpetrated in the second quarter of the last century and far too many in the State of Israel’s neighbours in the volatile Middle East engaged in Holocaust denial.  Again in the words of Primo Levi "the further events fade into the past, the more the construction of convenient truth grows and is perfected."  

As the years pass by and the remaining survivors of the Nazi horror who can tell the story firsthand reduce in number, it becomes more important than ever that we keep alive the shocking memory of the Holocaust. It is crucial that we never forget what happened or diminish the scale of the horror that was perpetrated by the Nazi regime.  This important exhibition, which will continue for the next three weeks and which I am privileged to open this evening, is an important contribution to raising awareness of the Holocaust.  The Holocaust Education Trust Ireland has worked with Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris and the French Embassy in Ireland to bring this exhibition to Dublin and I am particularly pleased to host the exhibition in the Department of Justice and Equality.  I would like to extend a very warm welcome to Luc Levy who works with the Mémorial de la Shoah, the producers of this exhibition and to the French Ambassador, Madame Emmanuelle D’Achon. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to Boaz Modai, the Israeli Ambassador, who represents a State which provided refuge and a home for tens of thousands of Jewish people following the horrors of the Second World War. 

The timing of this exhibition has been arranged to coincide with Ireland’s 10th National Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration which will take place this coming Sunday, the 29th January. This commemoration event, which is now firmly established in the Irish national calendar, has been supported by my Department since 2003 and I am very pleased to be in a position to continue that support.  Exhibitions such as this; Holocaust Memorial Day Commemorations and the work of the Holocaust Education Trust in Ireland are all excellent examples of what can be done to raise awareness of the Holocaust. 

I am also pleased that Ireland became a full member of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research in December 2011.  This Task Force is a voice of moral authority on the international stage in raising awareness about the Holocaust and can help address the dynamics that we know precede mass killings and genocide.

The importance of this exhibition is that it provides a global view of the Holocaust in Europe, starting with the growth of the Nazi movement, through the different stages of the persecution, inhumane treatment and extermination of millions of Jews, up to the Nuremburg Trials.  It also gives a picture of both the political and military reactions of a number of States to this tragedy which included disinterest of some nations toward the fate of the Jews and looks at reactions at an individual level including Jewish resistance and the Righteous among Nations.

It is difficult to comprehend how a society could have allowed such unimaginable atrocities to occur.  We must remember that the Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum.  These acts of evil emerged in one of the more modern and sophisticated societies of the era. 

Tools and advances made toward human progress were used for human destruction.  Scientific and medical advances designed to heal and save lives were used to kill.  Education which should enlighten was used to justify grotesquely immoral actions.  People made choices. Some chose to be involved in some way in the destruction, others chose to do and say nothing, while some chose to resist the evil and do the right thing to support, protect and save the persecuted.

An inconvenient truth is that those who chose to do and say nothing during this unprecedented period in European history include this State.  In the period following Hitler coming to power and preceding the Second World War, the doors of this State were kept firmly closed to German Jewish families trying to flee from persecution and death.  The advice of the anti-Semitic then Irish Ambassador in Berlin, Charles Bewley, that Ireland should be protected from the contamination that would result from granting residential visas to Jewish refugees resulted in practically all visa requests being refused.   This position was maintained from 1939 to 1945 and we should no longer be in denial that, in the context of the Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of moral bankruptcy.  This moral bankruptcy was compounded by the then Irish Government who, after the war, only allowed an indefensibly small number who survived the concentration camps to settle permanently in Ireland whilst refusing entry and permanent residence to many more and also by the visit of President De Valera to then German Ambassador Edouard Hemple in 1945 to express his condolences on the death of Hitler. At a time when neutrality should have ceased to be an issue the Government of this State utterly lost it’s moral compass. 

So, in understanding the Holocaust and maintaining its memory, in ensuring that the conditions which allow such evil to flourish to such devastating consequences can never again prevail, we should not forget or ignore the failures of this State and this State’s responsibility for such failures.  John Bruton, as Taoiseach, in the Spring of 1995, acknowledged our State’s failures and honoured the memory of those millions of European Jews who died in the Holocaust.  When doing so, he acknowledged that the Holocaust "was not the product of an alien culture. It happened in Europe in living memory. It was a product of intolerance, bigotry and a distorted concept of nationalism."  In the midst of the ongoing fiscal and banking crisis that currently impacts on the nations of Europe, including our State, we should never lose sight of the extraordinary contribution of the European Union in providing the political architecture for peace and stability in Europe.  As Europeans we must all ensure that in addressing vital issues of immediate concern that affect the lives of tens of millions, it is the European ideals of peace, cooperation and solidarity and not extreme nationalism nor narrow domestic political concerns which motivate our actions.

It is appropriate that we revisit the morality of the conduct of our State during the 1930s and 40s, whilst of course being conscious of the fact that only a short time earlier, we had regained our independence from Britain and there was an understandable concern by Government to ensure, insofar as possible, political stability on this island at a time of global conflict.  However, there were questionable things both done and not done and we should not be in denial nor should we ignore that the conduct of our State, at that time, in the eyes of some, delimits Ireland’s moral authority and credibility when today we seek to lecture later generations of those whose families survived the Holocaust on the conduct of their affairs in Israel, without regard to the extent to which they believe themselves under existential threat.

When viewing this exhibition no one should assume that what happened in the past cannot be repeated in the future. The truth is we should pay greater attention to the dead. We must never forget the lessons of the past when we make, or urge others to make, decisions which impact on the future.   We should never ignore the extent to which their past impacts on their perception of the present and fuels their fears of the future or causes them to question the judgement of others. 

For well over a decade, we have commemorated and paid tribute to the estimated 10,000 Irish people who died in British uniforms during the Second World War. Many who fought in British uniforms during that War returned to Ireland. For too many years, their contribution in preserving European and Irish democracy was ignored. Some of those include members of our Defence Forces who left this island during that time to fight for freedom and who were subsequently dishonourably discharged from the Defence Forces.  I believe it is also appropriate that we revisit the manner in which they were treated whilst also remembering that those who served in our Defence Forces throughout that time performed a crucial national duty.  It is untenable that we commemorate those who died whilst continuing to ignore the manner in which our State treated the living, in the period immediately after World War II, who returned to our State having fought for freedom and democracy. This is an issue to which I hope to return in my role as Minister for Defence later this year.

In conclusion, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lynn Jackson and her colleagues in the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland for their continued important work.

I would particularly like to commend the Crocus Project, which encourages national school children to plant yellow crocus bulbs in memory of the 1.5 million  Jewish  children  and  thousands of other children who died in the Holocaust.  This Irish initiative has now been extended to the UK, Croatia, Poland, Malta, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic.   I am delighted that my Department actively supported the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland in initiatives such as the Crocus Project, the production of the Holocaust Timeline and Teachers Handbook as well as the development of other educational, research and raising awareness materials.

I would also like to express our sincere gratitude to ‘our survivors’, who give so generously of their time to recount their personal stories to our children in schools around the country. 

I know that there are teachers here this evening as well and I would like to acknowledge their contribution to teaching our children about the Holocaust, about the dangers of racism and the importance of respect, equality and integration.

Congratulations to all those involved in organising this excellent and informative exhibition and I wish it every success.