Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentleman,
I have been here at this Forum five years ago, as President of Poland. And I am back here today as Chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation. My presence here – then and now – is due to the importance I attach to such good-will initiatives, which gather politicians and social leaders to remember the past for the sake of a peaceful future.
Ladies and Gentleman,
Two thirds of a century have passed since the end of the Second World War, the single most devastating event in human history. This Forum is dedicated to the commemoration of the darkest core of that event, the Holocaust. The Shoah, as it is called in Hebrew, or Zagłada, as it is called in my native Polish, not only destroyed six million human beings, half of them Polish citizens. For many, it also destroyed the very memory of their existence. Their graves are in the air we still breathe, their smiles, hopes, sufferings. Their achievements lost forever.
Not only they are dead.
Dying, too, are the ones who can remember them ever having existed. Those who still remember the bustling, vibrant civilization of the Jews of Europe, who are survivors and liberators. They are passing away every day. Every Anniversary of the Liberation – 27th January – there are less and less. But we will honor and remember them. And their children and grandchildren, who now inhabit the lands of Europe, America and Israel will not be content with not remembering.
In this, the Nazis did not achieve their desired victory.
But memory can be treacherous. Antek Cukierman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, had given his powerful memoirs the title “An Excess of Memory”. And indeed, all survivors carried with them a burden of memory far too heavy to bear. All, not only Jewish ones.
Therefore it is sad and painful when this memory – ours or theirs – is being questioned, even in the last days, by people, who should be beacons of tolerance and reconciliation for others. It disregards others in their suffering and commemoration, which require withholding and respect. It is as outrageous as the term “Polish concentration camps” which is used to denote camps built in occupied Poland to imprison and murder Polish citizens, as if the Poles were the perpetrators of that crime, not its victims.
Therefore it seems clear, that simply keeping memory and commemorating the victims is not enough. Memory obliges our and next generations not only for true reconciliation, but also to prevent similar tragedies and sufferings in the future.
But have we – politicians, societies – succeeded? Have we stood up to the task?
Once the victorious Allies had stopped the machinery of death we were sure that this will never happen again. In a way, this hope was fulfilled: no longer was it a crime to be Jewish, a crime punished with death. Yet other nations had experienced since a similar fate: the Bosnian Muslims and the Ruandan Tutsis about fifteen years ago, the Cambodians before them, the people of Darfur. The mantra of “Never again” proved to a large extent powerless.
But today, after the experience of Holocaust, we at least know what humans are capable to. And we understand our “Responsibility to Prevent”. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. His argument is still true. If we want to prevent suffering from happening, we must not forget the fact that tolerance – the backbone of stability and peace – is constantly being put to the test. And it cannot be simply decreed, but should be practiced and exercised while being vigilant towards manifestations of xenophobia, racism, and disregard for man.
There is no country, society, or culture, which could say that the tolerance homework had been done and that there is no point in dealing with it any longer. Nobody is immune to the demons of fanaticism and hatred. That is why we must not ignore or belittle any manifestation of collective pathology, any forms of disregard towards others. A desecrated tombstone, an inscription on a wall offensive towards other nations, anti-Semitic or racist statements – none of these events are “innocent” or “not dangerous”.
Due to the historic experience of Europe, we must remember that the principle of respect towards another human being is being undermined first shyly, later gradually with increasing force and finally, everything that is different, is relentlessly removed. That is why our reaction to the manifestations of intolerance must be firm and immediate.
And Europe, with its experience of II World War and Holocaust, has a special obligations to foster and strengthen tolerance at home and in the world. If we deny that experience, we deny that at our own peril.
Thank You for Your Attention.