Yom Hashoah Commemoration Address to the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies

21 mins read
The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO

A desire for knowledge for its own sake,
a love of justice that borders on fanaticism,
and a striving for personal independence.
These are the Jewish tradition that allows me to regard
belonging to it, as a gift of great fortune……
History has imposed on us a difficult struggle;
but so long as we remain devoted servants of truth; justice and freedom,
we will not only persist as the oldest living peoples,
but will also as before to achieve through our productive labour,
works that contribute to the ennoblement of humanity.

Albert Einstein

It is a humbling privilege for me to address you here, especially in the presence of survivors of the Holocaust or ‘Shoah’.

You have lived, endured and forgotten more about what brings us here than I will ever know. Yet you invite me to speak.

We pause here 80 years after the outbreak of the Second World War.

A cataclysm spanning six years, it remains the most destructive conflict in human history.

A life was extinguished every three seconds.

It claimed 60 million lives including 6 million Jews, murdered in the Holocaust along with political dissidents, Roma, Gypsies and homosexuals. Among them 1.5 million Jewish children

Humankind moved from one age to another.

The world would never be the same again.

We gather 74th years after the arrival at Auschwitz of the Soviet forces from the 60th army of the First Ukrainian Front.

The liberators would find some 7,650 barely living survivors, hundreds of thousands of personal effects and 700 tonnes of human hair.

As many as 1.5 million people – mainly Jews, had been murdered here.

With awkward humility and abiding reverence, we gather here to reflect upon, remember and honour them all.

We do so in renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind.

In commemorating the dead, we are inspired by the triumph of the human spirit given us by those who survived.

We are also challenged - Jews and members of the human race, to make this history live in ways that evoke and embed memory, leading always to our best inner selves. 

You don’t realise what you’re learning when you’re learning it.

The most significant thoughts that have challenged, shaped and transformed my own perspective, have come in random moments of quiet revelation - often when I least expected.

The power is in the story.

Hearing of my appointment as Director of the Australian War Memorial, a close friend said:
“You’re going to do what - run the Australian War Memorial? I can’t believe it. You’re wasting your life. You have much more important things to do for Australia than rearrange its history”.

I replied in part that this had much more to do with Australia’s future than its past.  

The past holds lessons vital to our future.

History is the guiding discipline. It informs choices before us. It can also demolish prejudice and leads us to new horizons.

In a world that is just not changing, but where human kind crosses the threshold to a new age as it did in the late 15th century, we must be clear about who we are, in what we believe and the truths by which we live.

The most important year in Australia’s history is 1788.

Millennia of rich indigenous history, culture and custodianship was devastated by the arrival of the British First Fleet carrying 1420 people, half convicts – including Jews.

But from that event and all that would follow, are the origins of the Australia we now are and the people we have become.

The next most important year was 1942.

Australia’s vital interests were at stake, from Singapore to the Coral Sea Kokoda and Guadacanal.

But also in January 1942, a world away in the outer lakeside Berlin suburb of Wannsee was a meeting convened by Reinhard Heydrich.  

Heydrich was the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, appointed by Reich Marshal Goring as the plenipotentiary for the ‘Preparation of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe’.

The ‘final solution’ would apply to 11 million Jews. This was new.

Heydrich said that the meeting sought to obtain ‘clarity of principle’ and coordination of central agencies.

Responsibility for handling the final solution would lie with him and Himmler.

In total, 11 million Jews would be targeted for extermination.

Without a whimper, the thirteen officials signed off on the ‘Final Solution’. The minutes would record their decision to ‘cleanse the German living space of Jews in a legal manner’.

As Heydrich convened the meeting deportations from the Lodz ghetto to the Chelmno death camp progressed. They reveal much of the unfolding horror.

Shlomo Frank recorded it in his diary.

Deportees  were….poor, broken, naked and starved....all cried mournfully, mothers embraced little children….

From the basement of a derelict building in Chelmno, stripped of belongings, naked and showered, they were herded up a ramp through a hole in the wall into the back of gas vans.

The vans used bottled carbon monoxide and later piped exhaust fumes into the van packed with victims. Jewish prisoners pulled the corpses from the vans and dragged the bodies to pits dug by Polish workers.

At day’s end the Jewish prisoners were forced into the pits themselves to be shot by the SS.

Only four Jews escaped from Chelmno. One was Szlama Wiener assigned to ancillary tasks who made it to the Warsaw ghetto in January 1942.

His deposition reads:

The corpses were thrown out of the vans like garbage onto a heap. They were dragged by the feet and the hair. Two people stood at the edge of the ditch and threw the bodies into the grave. Two others placed them face down so that the head of one was placed next to the feet of another…..If there was an empty space, the corpse of a child was stuffed in there……the eight workers were ordered into the pit and shot.

Weiner recounted two German civilians searching corpses for valuables:

They tore off necklaces, pulled rings off fingers, pulled out gold teeth. They even looked in anuses and, with the women, genitalia.

Several of the Jewish forced labour prisoners helped one another suicide.

On 13 January, the unloading crew discovered a live baby in one of the vans, hidden in a pillow case:

The SS men laughed. They shot the child with a machine gun and threw it into the grave (Montague, ‘Chlemno and the Holocaust, 96-113)

With brutal efficiency at Chelmno, less than a hundred SS guards exterminated some 97,000 thousand Jews from the Lodz ghetto.  

Ghetto management claimed fuel for 900 trucks to transport clothing and valuables looted from the dead.

It was also in 1942 that British poet, TS Eliot wrote these prophetic words:

A people without history is not redeemed from time
for history is a pattern of endless moments.

A nation that does not know – nor understand its history, is dangerous.

The events that bring us here tonight and upon which we reflect, have everything to do with us, our future and the people we strive to be.

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

The first line of our national anthem.

We sing it often. We hear it sung often. But less often do we pause to reflect on what it means.

Life’s paradox is that often it is those things most important to us that we have a tendency to take for granted.

The magic vitality of youth, unknown to us until it is gone forever.

Families that love us and give meaning and context to our lives.

To be an Australian citizen - whether by birth or by choice, conferring us with political, economic and religious freedoms.

To live in a nation in which faith coexists with reason; free academic inquiry; a free press and independent judiciary.

We are Australians not only or so much because we have a constitution and the machinery of democracy given us by the British.

We are defined most by our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.

We are shaped by our heroes and villains; our triumphs and failures; the way as a people we have faced adversity and how we will face the inevitable adversities that are coming and respond to new, emerging unseen horizons.

Nations like people, face ‘moments of truth’.

Moments in history to challenge our very survival and values. Well led, we emerge stronger, more resilient. But if not, we may be done lasting damage.

Those who survived, fled and found their way to Australia in the aftermath of the Second World War and Holocaust, made our nation.

More than simply help our economic and social reconstruction, they nourished our better instincts, gave us a greater belief in ourselves and, in the longer term a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Australian.

I have visited Washington on some thirty occasions over two decades.

Irrespective of time constraints, there are two places I always visit.

One speaks to evil darkness into which we are capable of descending in certain circumstances, the other to the ideals of mankind.

The first is the Holocaust Museum.

The thousands of shoes – including those of children.

Video footage of Nazi doctors experimenting on the insane and physically disabled, believing some people’s lives of so little value they could be ended with state sanction.

Then there are the photographs. Hundreds and hundreds of black and white photographs of men, women and children looking out from lives never fully lived.

High up on the second floor is a photograph of Rosa Goldenzeil. 

A Hungarian woman of advancing years, Rosa arrived with her daughters at Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. As selection commenced on the rail platform, she quickly grasped the situation. Rosa turned to her daughter holding her baby – “they are saving any women with children, give me the baby”.

Rosa knew by her own age that she was already dead as was the baby.

What moral courage did she draw upon to make the decision to save her own daughter and in doing so her give up her own life and that of her cherished grandchild?

From the Holocaust Museum I go to the Jefferson Memorial.

Thomas Jefferson was first Secretary of State and third president of the United States - a giant of man.

Enshrined in marble, I look up to the words he crafted for the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,
among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,
that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.

When asked toward the end of his life his greatest achievement, Jefferson nominated three things.

The first was co-authoring the American Declaration of Independence.

The second was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

But the third, he said was his single most important legacy - cofounding of the University of Virginia.

When asked why, after all he had achieved he would nominate that, he replied, “Because education is the defense of the nation”.

It is education more than anything else that is likely to protect us from ideas and attitudes deeply rooted in ignorance and forged on an anvil of prejudice.

A year after I took up this role I had one of the most meaningful experiences of my life, let alone my tenure as Director of the Australian War Memorial.

Memorial staff proposed a temporary exhibition of artworks by one of the Memorial’s Second World War Official War artists. Alan Moore was a name that meant nothing to me.  

Alan Moore had been commissioned as an official Australian War artist during the Second World War, deployed in 1944.

I scanned images of his work and asked, “When did he die?” Unsure and following enquiries, I was subsequently told he was living in a Victorian nursing home. 

At the age of 99, Alan was able to come to the Memorial to view works that had never been exhibited together and he had not seen for sixty years.

He arrived in a jacket and cravat wearing the beret he had worn through his war service.

Before an enormous media pack, I slowly pushed him in his wheel chair along his works. Through the South West Pacific, northern Africa and a V2 Rocket attack he witnessed and drew in London, we paused as he spoke with emotion of the subject matter depicted.

We then stopped at three confronting works at which point he physically trembled. Alan Moore was with the British when they liberated the Bergen Belsen death camp in April 1945.

He gestured to a charcoal drawing of the SS guards removing dead women and children from a railway carriage to a burial pit. 

“The Welsh guard, the Welsh guard”, he whispered. “I was drawing this and the Welsh guard told me no one will believe it. He was right, so I went and got my camera and took photos”.

The second work portrayed non-descript buildings and a perimeter fence. There were multiple objects of some sort on the ground and a stooped figure standing in their midst. Alan said, “The blind man….the blind man with the stick. He was walking amongst the dead and didn’t know”.

That day was the first time since he had done these Holocaust works that they had been hung at the Australian War Memorial.

When I asked why, I learned that he had been told repeatedly by my predecessors, “people are not interested in the holocaust”.

When Alan died in September 2015, I had his Holocaust works sent to the funeral service in Ballarat.

I looked more closely at what was told of the Holocaust in the galleries of the Australian War Memorial – seven small images.

I told our staff we would appropriate an area adjacent to the Second World War and construct a permanent Holocaust exhibition.

Not everyone was happy with this.

One critic said emphatically, “This has nothing to do with Australia and the Australian War Memorial. You are breeching your charter. I will never walk through it”.

“Why”, I asked, “do you think we were fighting the Second World War at all if not against Nazism and fascism?

This has everything to do with us, for we are part of human kind”.

In a world grappling with the mass movement of people; the persecution of political, ethnic and religious minorities; the push for state sanctioned euthanasia; and a generational struggle against resurgent totalitarianism principally in the form of Islamic extremism, we must remind ourselves not only of why we fought wars but that of which human kind is capable and the circumstances that lead to it.

The Holocaust: Witnesses and Survivors opened late in 2016.

This permanent exhibition presents the Holocaust through the stories of survivors who made their new lives in post-war Australia.

The rise of Nazism, the Wannsee Conference, transportation, the horrors of the gas chambers, ghettos and persecution.

The raw, powerful drawings of Bernard Slawik when he was interned at Janowska, depict death. They present a harrowing and deeply personal account of the callous, bureaucratic killing of the Jews of Lvov. He would escape and make his way to Australia in 1948.

Of the Bunk Beds he drew in the Janowska concentration camp where lay those who would be executed in the Belzec gas chambers, Bernard Slawik wrote:

Three-high, the bunks. Two to a mattress - 400 souls in one barrack.
Like logs they lie, exhausted. To sleep, sleep, sleep….rest, forgetfulness.
400 broken people. Not father, not wife, not child, not brother, not sister; just 400 broken beings……some screaming wrench themselves from sleep.
Nightmares? Memories? Surely it is all one fantastic nightmare.

His drawing of the naked women before their murder by camp guards hangs next to another of begging children brutally forced into cattle cars for the journey to the Belzec gas chambers.

Artefacts, documents and relics from the Jewish Holocaust Centre here have enabled us to bring individual stories of suffering and survival to life.

Finally, Alan Moore’s works at the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen are now permanently and proudly displayed.

Jewish identity has been shaped by three forces:

  • Anti-Semitism which remains a repugnant, ugly force in deep inside far too many people and in many parts of the world
  • The Holocaust or ‘Shoah’
  • The daily existential struggle of the State of Israel in a region dominated by theocracies and autocracies

Anti-Semitism is far from a feature of modern history.

The Roman Empire embraced Christianity. In doing so, anti-Semitism played a catalytic role in building the foundations of the religion that would supersede Judaism. European and western civilization was largely defined by Christianity which at various times used anti-Semitism to meet its political and theological objectives.

Anti-Semitism at different times has been seemingly ubiquitous, found in major religions, the political left and the political right, educated classes and amongst the illiterate poor.

It was into this context that the 19th century arrived.

The bitter hardships experienced by Germans after the First World War radicalised anti-Semitism. The Weimar Republic then legitimised violence as a form of control that was acceptable to the educated, upper classes.

Hitler was able to take advantage of two key things.

The first was that the majority were indifferent to the plight of the minority.

The second was that in Germany – as in other parts of Europe, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted – religious, secular and racial.

Anti-Semitism did not end with liberation of the death camps, nor with the end of the war, the Nuremberg trials or formation of the United Nations. 

Anti-Zionism, Holocaust denial, distortion of truths, glorification of Nazism - all featured at different times in the world since.

Today, troops are deployed across Europe protecting synagogues and Jewish places of congregation. Fire bombings, desecration of cemeteries and other violations of freedom are real, present and escalating dangers.

Crowds have even chanted ‘Gas the Jews’ and ‘Death to the Jews’.

In 340 BC in Plato’s Republic, Socrates concluded:

“The root of evil is ignorance”.

Jefferson in nominating ‘Education as the defense of the nation’ echoed a similar sentiment.

Who am I to argue with either?

Yet when I think back to Wannsee, to the thirteen German Ministers and public servants who signed off on ‘The Final Solution’, nine had the best university education Europe had to offer – masters degrees and PhDs.

Adolf Eichmann – Heydrich’s henchman in charge of implementing all this, said at his trial that Heydrich had expected opposition to the plan from the bureaucrats. Not only did they not resist, they embraced the heinous idea with enthusiasm.

It is more than education. It is character.

Character derives from the Greek word meaning the impression left in wax by a stone seal ring. The Greeks called it ‘the stamp of personality’.

Transcending everything else in life – rank, power, money, influence, looks and intellect, is character. Character is informed by values, worthwhile intrinsic virtues.

In my opinion, ethical and responsible citizenship relies on three things.

First, a minimum level of education and scientific literacy is required for people to understand and be resilient to change in society, including the technologies upon which it increasingly is built.

Second, we all need to be imbued with what Professor Graeme Davison described in The Uses and Abuses of Australian History as, the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of others.

Almost all of life’s pain, suffering and misery in my experience stems from people and nations making themselves the centre of their own world.

Third, people need to be imbued with a deep value system that informs character. As both Benjamin Franklin and Edmund Burke observed, ‘Men must be virtuous and have strength of character to enjoy freedom’.

The stories of survivors, the qualities embodied in their humanity and spirit are surely one powerful values guide to the future.

Among those values: courage – both physical and moral; endurance, devotion, independence, loyalty, honesty, love of others and never forgetting from where you come, who gave you what you have and made you who you are.

And that is why museums and memorials are vital to our common future.

The responsibility we all share in this common endeavour is to make these stories live - engaging to and engaged by a new generation.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for the broad brushstrokes of history, headlines, popular imagery and mythology.

Our comfortable lives breed easy indifference to individual acts of moral and physical courage, lives given in the name of all that is good and triumph of the human spirit in death.

The key is to invite people to look beyond the narrow prism of their own lives to that of others.

These stories – your stories, are ones of individual persecution, survival in the face of unimaginable adversity and yet also the liberating power of hope and of love.

Often just one image or one story can captivate the imagination of others, educating and inspiring them to be better people.

The paradox of the Australian War Memorial is that it is not actually about war.

Instead from the horror and bloodshed emerge stories of love and friendship; love for friends and between friends; love of family and of country; of honouring men and women whose lives have been devoted not to themselves, but to us – and their last moments to one another.

The most engaging and popular story depicted in a magnificent bronze by Peter Corlette is that of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey carrying a wounded man on its back.

Disobeying orders to retrieve only the most seriously wounded, Simpson used a donkey to rescue forty wounded men from the gullies and ravines over twenty one days.

He was shot and killed by a sniper.

His mother penned the epitaph for the grave she would never see above Anzac Cove:

Military purists and historians struggle to understand the appeal of the story to the wider public.

My response to them is that there is nobility in a man that loves animals and a man and animal risking life to save others. The ideal and the lesson is that a life of value is one spent in the service of others, irrespective of the cost to yourself.

The second is also a Corlette sculpture of ‘Weary’ Dunlop.

A surgeon who wore humility more comfortably than a stethoscope, Dunlop tended to the men suffering and dying under Japanese brutality on the Burma -Thai Railway during the Second Wold War.

Gazing down, hat in hand, he evokes care and compassion for others in the most extreme circumstances. Doing so, he engages a story of inspiring humanity rather than the heinous events in which it was given.

People cannot comprehend war unless they have been in one. But they do engage and relate to the human emotions and motives evoked by these two images and the stories they tell.

Two simple but powerful offerings for memory that we have also done.

Every night from dusk to dawn, onto the front of the Australian War Memorial, the name of each of the 102,800 Australian men and women who have given their lives for us in war and peacekeeping over 120 years is projected.

Just beneath the Dome above the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, each name appears for 30 seconds four times a year. With the dates and time of projection available on the website, people quietly stand in front of the Memorial in the early hours of the morning just waiting for a name to appear.

Some have driven across the country to do so.

Early in my tenure I proposed that we arrange for year six students the length and breadth of Australia to record the name and age of death of each on out our nation’s 62,000 First World War dead.

On a single day, students went into the ABC’s regional studios to so record the names. Google built an app for us entitled Remember Me that allowed schools to log in. Students download the names and ages, record and upload them to the Memorial.

Teachers had their students research the story on the men and women whose names they were recording.

Visitors who walk along the First World War Roll of Honour hear these young voices reciting names and ages of death.

At the launch, I publicly asked one of the students what it meant to him? He replied, “I now know they were real people just like me and weren’t made up”.

Therein lays the key challenge and response to Holocaust memorials.

We need to personalise in a public and engaging way the stories of individuals so the next generation doesn’t simply think they were ‘made up’.

People engage not so much with the horror, but the inspiring human qualities that emerge from it.

Memorials to the Holocaust need to be ‘mainstreamed’. Too often they are confined to Jewish institutions, sacred Jewish places and congregational communities.

They should be visible reminders to us all not so much of what was done but the human spirit and qualities informing character that inspire us to be better people - repositories of love and ennobled memory.

In the end, we honour them best by the way we live our lives, shape our nation and contribute to a better world.

The most powerful yet fragile of human emotions is – hope.

We all have to believe that tomorrow will be better than today, next year better than this. Not only or so much for ourselves, but those whom we love and our country.

Hope is most sustained by men and women reaching out in support of one another.

It seems we live in a world of fundamentalist intolerance and moral relativism.

We now face a resurgent totalitarianism, principally but not only in the form Islamic extremism. Disparate groups have hijacked the good name of Islam to build a violent political utopia.

We live in vast ignorance of the decisions we make and that are made for us, facing extraordinary global uncertainty and immense technological change.

What we need most is one another.

No human being, no Australian who believes in the dignity of man, of freedom and democratic principles, should ever allow through neglectful indifference these events, these people, their lives and stories, to become a distant stranger.

The Shoa and those who survived it teach us many things.

It includes a commitment to one another; of conscience and knowing the right thing to do and when to do it; feeling the pain of others and seeing the world through their eyes.

Most importantly they inspire us to have the moral courage irrespective of personal consequences, to act on what in our hearts we know to be right.

In the words of the great 18th century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant: 

“Every human being is an end unto to himself and not a means to be used by others. Respect for one’s own humanity will be found in respect for the humanity of others – and morality is freedom”.

Failure in this will render us blind to injustice, deaf to despair and indifferent to the future.

With respects to John Donne, I ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for me.

….for we young and we are free.

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