Speech at Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation event, Jewish Holocaust Centre
THU 26 JULY 2012
E & OE proof only
Friends, we are here today because of those who are not.
We are here to be the voice of those whose voice was stilled by the greatest crime humanity has ever known: the Shoah, the Holocaust.
It was of such moment, of such horrific magnitude, that the world can and should never be the same again.
A part of us must always be on guard, always aware, because we know the depths to which even educated men and women – an advanced civilisation – can, and did, sink.
How quickly it can happen. How irreversible the consequences. How deep the legacy of grief.
In the decades since the Shoah, this community has so often come together to pay tribute to those who were lost.
In more recent times, I have been called upon by the Jewish community, to honour the memory of two extraordinary individuals who fought against the darkness.
Two extraordinary stories that give us an added dimension of the Holocaust and its lessons for us as human beings.
I was deeply moved by the story of Irena Sendler.
She saved some 2500 Jews, mainly children, from the Warsaw Ghetto and death at the hands of the Nazis.
As Irena herself described, “I sent most of the children to religious establishments. I knew I could count on the Sisters.”
Extraordinarily, she carefully preserved the names of each of those children by writing them on pieces of paper and burying them in jars.
Eventually Irena Sendler was discovered, imprisoned by the Nazis and brutally tortured.
They broke her legs, but not her spirit.
Indeed, she never betrayed a single life, and after the war, retrieved her shards of paper and tried to unite survivors with parents.
But almost always, the parents had been exterminated at Treblinka.
“I could have done more,” Irena said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
But she did so much, and her singular acts of courage properly saw her named as Righteous Among the Nations.
The memory of Irena Sendler has been recently honoured here in Melbourne through a magnificent concert inspired by her selfless deeds, and sponsored jointly by the Governments of Poland and Israel and their Ambassadors to our country.
This year, we are also marking the centenary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg – so well known as one of the most heroic and courageous individuals of the 20th century.
His story has been often told but never grows dim.
Raoul Wallenberg single-handedly used his position and authority as a Swedish diplomat in Nazi-occupied Hungary, to save, in just a six-month period, 100,000 Jews from murder.
On one night alone, by defying the orders issued by Adolf Eichmann, Mr Wallenberg saved 70,000 lives.
For these reasons, Raoul Wallenberg has also been recognised as the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and has been named an honorary citizen by the State of Israel, the United States, Canada and Hungary.
I am very glad that their stories have been recounted here in Australia this year, because we must never fail to appreciate the meaning of selfless and tireless devotion to human life, and the meaning of moral courage.
Indeed, the stories of Irena Sendler and Raoul Wallenberg pose for us the question whether each of us would have shown the same determination to act under such horrific circumstances, even though others did not.
Fortunately it is a question most of us will never have to face.
But there is one moral and civic response to the Holocaust that does concern us all: we must ensure the Holocaust remains as a sign and warning for all generations – especially as we face the possibility of a world without the survivors.
Therefore we must be the witnesses for the witnesses.
We must be the custodians of the records, the stories, the artifacts and the places that denial can never overcome.
This is why this museum, which I was privileged to visit this afternoon, is so important.
The more time passes from the Shoah, the more imperative it is to ensure that memories do not fade. That history is not re-written. That the Holocaust and its meaning is represented to every generation. That we never fail to bear witness.
This is the mission of the Jewish Holocaust Centre and its counterparts in Australia and around the world.
But no place speaks more starkly or hauntingly about the Shoah than Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It is, perhaps, the most infamous place on Earth.
The train tracks with their deadly terminus.
The barbed wire enclosing the stark rows of flimsy wooden barracks.
The sign that immortalises history’s most brazen lie.
And the low, looming buildings with such wickedness at their heart.
Friends, in one sense, Auschwitz is so painful it would have been easier to demolish it.
But retaining that place was the harder, better choice.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is an irrefutable fact. It cannot be airbrushed from cognition. It cannot be denied.
It is a place that must command our attention and timeless moral concern.
All the camps where the Holocaust was perpetrated are places that make us profoundly uneasy, profoundly uncomfortable – they are places that afflict our souls.
And they are places where our conscience must reside.
So friends, when the Prime Minister of Poland wrote to me requesting a contribution from Australia to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, you know what my response would be.
With the support and advocacy of Mark Dreyfus and Michael Danby, I’m proud to say Australia has joined the community of nations by contributing half a million dollars to the Foundation’s perpetual fund.
The intention of the fund is simple: to ensure that the Foundation will never want for money so that Auschwitz-Birkenau will always be conserved.
We make this gift because Auschwitz is a place and a story for all humankind and for all time.
From it and the other camps, six million deaths cry out through the ages for justice and for remembrance.
The enormity of their loss must not be forgotten.
So we pledge, once more, here today, joining with people of goodwill in every country to say, never again. Never, ever again.