Representatives of Jewish organisations,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I was born during the war in a country occupied by Nazi Germany, only a few dozen kilometres from the Auschwitz extermination camp, then in the process of being built. It was not until many years later that I realised that I, a defenceless child, had been so close to the equally defenceless victims of a murderous regime.
I am here today in Kraków as a representative of the peoples of a united Europe. A Europe that is proud of its identity; proud of having been able to reach a consensus in spite of the obstacles. But the journey towards that consensus was a long and difficult one. I am here today with more than 20 MEPs from different Member States.
The Shoah is an incomparable tragedy. We are here together to express our solidarity and honour the memory of the tragedy that was the Holocaust.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the calls that had been made by Jews outside occupied Europe to stop the killing were still fresh in people’s minds. Those calls were not given credence at the time, nor were the reports by the Polish underground and the ‘Auschwitz volunteer’, Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki.
The peoples of Europe had no option but to overcome that dreadful trauma. And overcome it they did.
Sixty-five years have now passed since the hell that was Auschwitz came to an end. The camp was liberated by the soldiers of the Red Army, who shed their blood in the fight against Nazism. For that, we shall be forever grateful to them.
However, those same soldiers belonged to the army of yet another totalitarian state. They entered this territory with a message of liberation from the Nazi death machine, but their arrival merely marked the onset of the Soviet scourge.
In a Europe that was on its knees, life slowly and painfully returned to normal. Hopes of lasting peace and dignity began to emerge; hopes of a world in which people would live free among the free, and equal among equals. Here, in the countries governed by Stalin’s henchmen, those hopes grew as each new wall went up.
To begin with, it looked as if local Jewish life would also resume. By 1948, synagogues, yeshivas and mikvahs had opened again. But the new brand of totalitarianism would not allow people to live free either, and in Central and Eastern Europe, Jewish spiritual life started to die out.
The period of subjugation came to an end with the return of democracy 20 years ago, which enabled the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland to be re-established. That union now forms part of the European Jewish Congress, our host today. It is thanks to that rebirth that Polish Jews today have their own rabbis and their own synagogues. And it is thanks to the victory of democracy that today we are able together to honour the millions of people who perished in Auschwitz. Together among the peoples of a united Europe; together with our Jewish and Roma brothers and sisters. Free among the free; equal among equals.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The European Union – whose citizens are represented in the Parliament of which I am the President – came into being in order to prevent any recurrence of the nightmare of war. And Auschwitz is a symbol for the European Union too, as was borne out by the election of Simone Veil, a former extermination camp inmate, as the President of the first democratically elected European Parliament.
Today we are the EU institution that calls loudest and strongest for respect to be shown for human rights. We are determined to ensure that lessons are learned from the tragic events of the past.
It is our duty as Europeans to ensure remembrance and to educate. Those who lived through the hell of the camps never forget. But there are fewer and fewer of them among us. The others – the younger generations – must not be allowed to forget. The further away we are from those events, the more the years pass, the more important remembrance becomes.
The recent theft of the historic sign ‘Arbeit macht frei’ was an example of the failure to remember, and of a lack of education. The theft for former detainees was like stealing a sacred object. It is to be welcomed that the police swiftly caught the young thieves. But it is to be deplored that nobody taught them to respect what is sacred.
That is why, when I was Prime Minister, we launched the Oświęcim Strategic Government Programme (Oświęcim is the city where the Memorial and Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp is located), the principal aim of which is to conserve and show proper reverence for this site of mass extermination of Jews, Poles and other peoples. To our Jewish brothers and sisters, who, over the centuries, have built their own unique world of culture and learning, Auschwitz is and will remain the symbol of mass murder – of the Shoah, the Holocaust.
We also made a start on setting up an International Centre of Education in Oświęcim. At the time, the March of the Living had already been in place for 10 years, providing young Israelis with a lesson in history. A lesson which all nations still need to learn.
The European Parliament is now building a House of European History, a state-of-the-art museum that will serve to educate people about the most important – and, like the Holocaust, most tragic – events in our European history.
Today it is our duty to defend democracy and human rights. And no one can release us from this obligation. That is why on 9 December I and four former Presidents of the European Parliament signed a declaration marking the 61st anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In that declaration we called on politicians to make the struggle to uphold those rights an integral part of their work and of everything they do.
To the spirits of our forebears who were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, we can say that we are all here together in order to ensure that their tragedy – which is our tragedy too – is never repeated.
Today, in this place, as we call with all our hearts for there to be NO MORE WAR, we must also call for a LIFE OF FREEDOM AND DIGNITY AND FOR SCRUPULOUS RESPECT TO BE SHOWN FOR HUMAN AND CITIZENS’ RIGHTS.