Ceremony at the Shoah Memorial in France
Shoah Memorial, January 27, 2015
President of the Memorial,
Ladies and Gentlemen, former deportees.
January 27 is a date forever engraved in human memory. Seventy years ago, on January 27, 1945, at approximately 3 in the afternoon, Soviet troops opened the gates of the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was a revelation of horror. It was not yet the moment of liberation, as most of the survivors had been taken by the Nazis on a long march, a death march. Exhausted by hunger, cold and sickness, they suffered their last on the frozen plains of Silesia. As Vasily Grossman wrote, “Not even Dante, in his hell, saw scenes so atrocious.” But you lived it.
And so the world discovered the methodical, planned, scientific extermination of the Jews, a crime so evil it had no name. So a new name was created to designate it: the Holocaust. The Holocaust, the greatest crime ever known to and ever committed by humankind. It was carried out on European soil by the regime of one of our continent’s most civilized nations, and it found allies, accomplices, here in France, under the Vichy government. The scale of this crime made it unique. Six million women and men were exterminated because they were Jewish, and how many others were enslaved or put to death because they were gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs, communists, resistance workers, or handicapped? Six million, including 1.5 million children; three quarters of Europe’s Jews, more than a third of the world’s Jewish population.
The method of this crime – bureaucratic, industrial – made it unique. The Nazis had made the “final solution,” as they called it, a problem they had to solve by any means possible. First by drawing up lists containing millions of names, so they would know who the Jews were, how they could be found, and make sure no one was left behind. Then the Nazis went out—and not all alone, by the way – to get them them; they rounded them up, loaded them into packed cattle cars and ushered them into the gas chambers. That is what occurred in the middle of the 20th century. That is what happened.
The nature of this crime, too, made it unique. Evidence had to be destroyed. The Nazis took the same precautions whether the murders were committed with bullets, as in Ukraine; gas vans, as in Chelmno; or at concentration camps like Auschwitz. The horror had to be disguised so that it could be carried out completely, so that it would be final. All the Jews had to die; nothing was to remain of their presence. Corpses were burned as during the great epidemics of the Middle Ages, the ashes scattered so that no trace would remain of the abomination. Jews had to be excluded from human society to make them disappear from the past, present and future, and to make the task of mourning them impossible for any potential survivors.
Robert Badinter spoke of desperately awaiting his father’s return and of being unable to resign himself to his death. Bruno Bettelheim added that for him, mourning was impossible: “Since some did come back, why wouldn’t my own parents come back one day?” That was his question.
They never did come back. But here, at the Shoah Memorial, their names are inscribed forever. Nothing remained of them but ashes and smoke; thanks to you, they have found a place in the eternity of stone.
And you, ladies and gentlemen, you are the last witnesses – indefatigable, inconsolable, uncompromising – and you continue to tell us about what happened 70 years ago. I want to offer you all my gratitude, all the nation’s gratitude for the work – the word is poorly chosen – for the duty you took upon yourselves once again to bear witness, to tell, to recount. You travel among the towns and schools of France. Even now, you make the trip – and I can only imagine how much suffering it must cause you – to Auschwitz, to the very locations where you were deported. You want to show hell to those who don’t know that it once existed on this earth and that you experienced it. It was Simone Veil who said that the deportees never really leave the camps, that their spirit remains there and the Holocaust continues to haunt their lives and their nights. You decided to turn your nightmare into a lesson, a lesson to others. You are the face of humanity – its beautiful face – the humanity the executioners wanted to break, and that is why the echo of our voices must not fade, for otherwise, as Eluard said, we will perish.
I know what torments you: who will speak, who will speak of the camps, who will speak of the Holocaust when you are no longer here? I make you this promise, and it’s a commitment: the Republic of France will never forget. And with the documents, the eyewitness accounts you have left us, the books, the texts, the recordings and this place, which belongs to you, we will never forget.
The Shoah Memorial, Mr. President, grew out of the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation, whose secret creation in Grenoble in April 1943 was in itself an act of resistance. Isaac Schneersohn, its founder, had decided, in the midst of the Occupation, to assemble the first archives, to collect writings and amass evidence so that one day suffering would be transformed into memory, and memory into history. In 1956, the Center was established here in the Marais, this neighborhood in the heart of Paris that had been a refuge for Jews early in the century before becoming a trap, the place they came to look for you, in the 1940s.
Seventy years ago, the worst crimes had been committed, and so there had to be a memorial. On January 25, 2005, it was inaugurated by President Jacques Chirac, with this wall dedicated to the 75,721 Jews who were deported from France with the active complicity of the French State. Jacques Chirac began his speech with these words from the Hebrew Bible: “Remember. Never forget.”
On September 21, 2012, I myself inaugurated the Shoah Memorial of Drancy. Drancy, the departure point for trains headed to Auschwitz. I was surrounded by young people from the schools of Seine-Saint-Denis, to whom I issued the same appeal: Never forget, for that would be insulting those who died in the camps.
The Memorial - and I would like to congratulate the entire team - has now succeeded in gathering more than 40 million documents, receives 200,000 visitors every year and hosts every year, on the occasion of Yom HaShoah, a ceremony in which the names of all deported French Jews are read aloud. This ceremony lasts 24 hours; it wouldn’t be possible to read even half of the names of these innocent victims of torture in 24 hours.
The Memorial is dedicated to the passing on of memories, i.e. it’s a place where evil is explained – to the greatest extent possible -, analyzed – as much as is necessary -, and the darkest recesses of this evil are explored. The Memorial is a place of vigilance, a place of clear-sightedness where we learn that remembrance is a commitment, a commitment to the fight against all forms of hatred, because the Memorial commemorates the Holocaust as well as all genocides; the 20th anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, and this year it will commemorate the anniversary of the genocide of the Armenians.
This Memorial represents suffering, your suffering, that of the survivors, but it also represents the responsibility of the living. The Memorial therefore requires us to go beyond our normal limitations in order to prevent the erasing of memories which would be the final crime of the executioners, with this horrifying question facing us today. How, after the Holocaust, after this crime against humanity, this ignominy with the racist hatred of some people resulting in the extermination of their fellow human beings, how can anti-Semitism resurface? This is the question we must ask ourselves once again.
Why do Jewish people feel that they will never have rest or respite? Péguy wrote – 40 years before the Holocaust – “For fifty centuries, Jews have been drenched in suffering.” They are still living in pain. I hear the pleas of those who ask me, who ask us, when this curse will end.
Three weeks ago in Paris, four men died in a kosher store for the same reason that the Vel d’Hiv families were rounded up in 1942, that the faithful were attacked on rue Copernic in 1980, that strollers on rue des Rosiers were killed in 1982, that the young boy Ilan Halimi was tortured in 2006, that children were massacred at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse in 2012. Because they were Jewish. They died, not because of what they did, but because of who they were: Jewish. And so there are 4 more names that must be added to the long list of names already written on this wall of remembrance.
The rise in anti-Semitic acts has become an unbearable reality over the last few years. The number of these acts reportedly doubled last year: assaults, uncivil behavior, vandalism. This scourge is, I know, prompting some Jewish people to ask themselves if they should remain in France. France, the country to which they’ve given their hearts and whose joys and sadness they have felt deeply throughout their lives. This France, which loves them, as it loves all children of the Republic, but where sometimes they no longer feel safe. And this doubt, this question is a wound, a terrible wound affecting the Republic, which it must treat and take care of.
French citizens of the Jewish faith, you belong here, you are at home here. France is your homeland. You have given it your talent, your efforts, your courage and sometimes your blood. Our country would no longer be France if it had to live without you, and if terrorism forces you to abandon France, the French language, French culture, and the French Republic that emancipated the Jews, then terrorism will have achieved its goal.
So the responsibility of the Republic’s authorities – they’re all gathered together here – is to do everything to ensure Jews are fully at home in France, to ensure they never feel threatened or isolated here. To fight an enemy, you must first know it and name it: anti-Semitism. It has changed its face, but it hasn’t lost its ancient roots. Some of its motives haven’t changed, unfortunately, since time immemorial. It’s still about conspiracies, suspicion and falsification, but today it’s also fueled by hatred of Israel.
It imports the conflicts of the Middle East and despicably blames the Jews for people’s misfortunes. It maintains conspiracy theories that spread without limits – conspiracy theories that have, in the past, already led to the worst. So in the face of those threats, we need responses, strong responses, suitable responses.
The first is security. The government of Manuel Valls has taken the proper measures to ensure that the Jewish community’s synagogues, shops, schools and cultural centers are protected. Service personnel have even been present to ensure that protection. But I’m also aware of the bitterness and anger which that presence inspires among many of you. How, in 2015, can we accept that armed soldiers are necessary to defend France’s Jews? It’s necessary and we’re doing it, and we’ll do it for however long it’s called for.
I want to go further, improving the visibility and effectiveness of punishments, which will mean extending to all crimes the aggravating circumstances of racism and anti-Semitism and removing the ban on racist and anti-Semitic language from press law, to include it in general criminal law. And in order for punishment to be an opportunity to gain awareness, alternative sentences of exemplary educational value will be developed.
The second response is communication and knowledge. That’s the role of schools. I want to reiterate my confidence in our country’s teachers and educators. They’re doing their job. We must help them do it successfully, and work together with them to address the concerns raised among them by recent events. How were pupils able, on January 9, to break the unity of the minute’s silence? It’s a new warning among others, and it imposes an obligation on us.
One of the instruments that can be used to dispel this ignorance is the teaching of the history of the Holocaust. It’s included in the school curriculum for 5th grade, 9th grade and 11th grade students; it should be taught without any restrictions. A number of events should also be reintroduced: the National Contest on the Resistance and Deportation, for which I will award prizes on May 8 at the ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Nazism. This prize, this contest has existed since 1961. It should be reintroduced and updated and I hope that there will be efforts to ensure that it will continue to exist in the future.
The Memorial must also play its full role. It receives almost 2,000 groups of elementary, middle and high school students and I know that there are students who are currently working on the Holocaust, in preparation for the Contest on the Resistance. The passing on of memories, understanding, knowledge, so that nothing is overlooked, or worse, so that nothing can be interpreted in a particular way.
The third response involves realizing that the conspiracy theories are spread through the Internet and social media networks. But we must not forget that it was words, first of all, that prepared the way for extermination. We must take action at the European level, and even at the international level, so that a legal framework can be established, so that the Internet platforms that manage social networks face up to their responsibilities, and so that penalties can be imposed in the case of non-compliance.
The Union of Former Deportees and the Jewish Student Union of France are issuing the same call against Holocaust denial on the Internet. They are addressing the major Internet providers; we know who they are. They can no longer close their eyes, or they will be considered complicit in what is being disseminated. France will support this call. This afternoon I will be at Auschwitz, and I will ask the representatives of the governments in attendance to do the same.
Based on these principles – security, the transmission of knowledge, the regulation of the digital sector – I hope that by late February, the government will present a comprehensive plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. On January 11, after what happened in our country – the three-day attack that struck journalists first, police officers next, and then Jews – millions of us came out to demonstrate that France would stand tall in the face of those who would have us bend. Leaders came from all over the world to show that when France is attacked, she never stands alone. Our response was one of pride, dignity and unity.
We are close to the Allée des Justes – the Path of the Righteous – that runs alongside this memorial. The lesson of the Righteous is not simply one of courage; it is that of clear-sightedness, responsibility and duty, all values that France has embodied. The lesson of the Righteous is that there is always an alternative to howling with the pack. The lesson of the Righteous is that even alone, an individual is not without power, not without duty. The message of the Righteous is beautiful, it is strong; they are the men and women who make the world what it is and can therefore change it.
The lesson of the Righteous is that France moves forward when she rallies around her values. Standing together, united, does not preclude differences, they are legitimate. It does not rule out diversity, which is beneficial, or democratic debate, which is necessary. But above and beyond everything else, there is the Republic, one and indivisible. So to all our fellow citizens, to you, who are the witnesses, I want to say that France will protect all her children; she will tolerate no insult, no offense, no desecration. That holds true for all religions, it holds true for all beliefs and all consciences, and here I would like to pay my respects to the representatives of France’s Muslim community, who have joined us here today.
Anti-Muslim acts have also increased over the past few weeks. And every time women, men or children are attacked because of what they think or believe, it’s an attack on what our country represents in the eyes of the world. Together, we are France – the one in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed to the world that no one may be disturbed because of his opinions, even religious, and the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man.
The democratic nations chose to include January 27 in the memory of mankind. What did they want to say? That January 27 is a universal event that concerns not just Jewish people but the whole world.
The nations also wanted to remind all peoples where intolerance leads, that it can strike everyone. It was Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial philosopher, who wrote: “When you hear someone insulting the Jews, pay attention: he is talking about you.” Remembering crimes against humanity isn’t the task of any one person, it’s our common heritage. To understand barbarism – you came face to face with it – we have to be able to recognize it wherever it is, and those who claim to deny one suffering in the name of another suffering are never on the side of the victims, they’re always with the oppressors.
The Nobel prizewinner in literature, Patrick Modiano, wrote in one of his finest books – which he dedicated to Dora Bruder, a girl who disappeared in the darkness of the camps: “It takes time, a very long time, for what has been erased to come to light.” It is this light that you give us back here at the memorial – you, the former deportees; you the witnesses; you also, who are involved in passing on the memories. And it’s this light that we must all carry together, against the darkness that looms, still looms – here, everywhere – but we are here.
Long live the Republic and long live France!./.