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Junior Minister Newton's Speech- Holocaust Memorial Day 27th January 2010

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Lord Mayor, ladies and gentlemen I am honoured to be with you this evening for the ninth regional Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, organised by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

I am also pleased that the commemoration is being held here in the beautifully refurbished City Hall, a venue right at the heart of our city which fittingly reflects the significance of Holocaust Memorial Day.

As we have heard, the theme for the commemoration this year is “The Legacy of Hope”. It encourages us to listen afresh to those who survived the Holocaust as they speak of their pain and loss - but also of their strength and determination to survive.

When we hear about the experiences of those who came through the Holocaust, and indeed those who survived more recent genocides, we cannot fail to be moved by their stories. We must never forget that they are people just like us – ordinary people, from homes and families so similar in many ways to our own. And yet they are also unique and exceptional. The bond of shared suffering, of living through unspeakable horrors unites them in a unique way. Their resilience, their amazing capacity to rebuild their lives from the depths of despair, and the contribution that each one has made to the world around them makes them exceptional.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has released a DVD for 2010 which tells the story of some of the Holocaust survivors. Ben Elfgott was a boy of 10 when the Second World War started.

When Hitler invaded Poland his family were forced to live in a ghetto in terrible conditions. Ben survived ghetto and concentration camp and ended up in England in 1947. Most of his family perished.

Within ten years the victim of Nazi persecution had become a champion weightlifter and Olympic medallist representing his adopted country. He has worked hard for many years to teach the lesson of the Holocaust so that all can learn from it. His story is remarkable but even more remarkable is his attitude to his suffering. In the DVD he describes how his childhood ended in the ghetto.  But his legacy is not one of bitterness but of hope.  His message, in his own words, is that:
“Tolerance and respect for others should be the guideline for living in harmony with one another”. 
Remarkable indeed and a lesson we could all learn from.

Last summer Belfast witnessed a series of attacks on Romanians who had come to Northern Ireland for a better life. Men, women and children were terrified and fled to safety. Many left Northern Ireland. Those attacks were carried out by a very small minority but the message of that racism flashed across the national media and beyond.

Officials from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and Belfast City Council worked with others to resolve the situation and help show the victims of the attacks that those who perpetrated them are not typical of our society.

Through the Community Relations Council and the Minority Ethnic Development Fund the Department continues to fund initiatives to increase our understanding and appreciation of those who share our society, with the aim of removing the scourges of prejudice, discrimination and racism from our communities. But this work takes time and while programmes and initiatives can help, only individuals can change hearts and minds. 

Auschwitz- Birkenau was the largest of the concentration camps built by the Nazis across Europe to annihilate Jews and many others who did not fit the Nazi ideal, including Roma and Sinti, gay men and lesbians, and children and adults with disabilities. When the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on the 27 January 1945 the full extent of the horror of the camp was exposed.

SS officers tried to hide what had been done by destroying records but they could never erase the memories of the survivors.

Despite - or perhaps because of - their unimaginable suffering, many of those individuals have gone on to make significant contributions to their communities. Many have stated that it was hope which brought them through the darkest period of their lives.  Lily Ebert is also featured on the Trust DVD. Lily was a young girl when she and her family were herded onto railway carriages and transported to Auschwitz. At the end of the war a little gold pendant given to her by her mother was the only possession she had to remind her of the family she had lost and she wears it today in memory of them.

Yet she says:
“In spite of all the suffering, we kept our hope because without hope we would have definitely perished. We hoped against all odds and this gave us the possibility of survival.”

Sadly, the prejudice and hatred which brought Lily’s family and millions of others to the death camps is still reflected within our societies today. Houses belonging to members of ethnic minority communities here have been stoned, windows smashed and paint thrown over doors.  People have been attacked because of the colour of their skin or their accent. People fear and distrust what they do not understand and victims of hate crime here can testify to the narrow-mindedness and prejudice that fuels attacks on ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the disabled.

The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is a partner in the ‘Unite Against Hate’ campaign launched last September to challenge the prejudices which, if left unchecked, can lead to hate crime.  The campaign provides an opportunity for ordinary people to demonstrate their opposition to the mindless minority who carry out such crimes. Hate crime in all its forms is unacceptable. As the campaign’s website says “Attacking someone because of their sexuality, race, religion or disability is an attack on their very identity as a human being, and society must challenge those who do so.” 

The Department also contributes funding to the ‘Thin Edge of the Wedge’ programme which deals directly with the causes and effects of racism through understanding the history of the Holocaust. The programme is directed at young men and local civic leaders, and is playing a positive role in reducing local sectarian and racial tensions.

65 years after Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated we are still fighting many of the evils which led to its construction. Since the end of the Holocaust many survivors have felt compelled to use their experience as a clarion call to act today. Their will to overcome and to remain human in the face of such inhumanity should inspire us to take action. We need to ask ourselves what we should be doing to build safer and stronger communities. 
Their memories and their words should influence us to strive for an inclusive society where we celebrate difference, free from the dangers of exclusion and persecution.

Alixs and Rachel will speak to us later about their experience in visiting Auschwitz and how it made them think about their attitude to life. It is so important that we pass on a ‘Legacy of Hope’ to our young people. By understanding how the Holocaust occurred, future generations may be spared the horror of repeating it. The stories of victims and the voices of survivors must be heard.  As the humanitarian activist Dr Hugo Slim says of the voices that speak out of tragedy to our shared sense of humanity:
 “We need to listen, for a change.”

Our responsibility this evening is to remember those who were persecuted and murdered, those whose lives were destroyed.

Our challenge is to ensure that the experience and words of the victims and survivors make a difference to the way we live our lives. We need to learn about the Holocaust but we also need to learn from the Holocaust so that our attitudes, our words and our choices will be a positive influence on those around us. If we take that lesson with us when we go home tonight then we will begin to make our contribution to the “The Legacy of Hope”.

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