Speech by Austrian State Secretary for Art and the Media Heinz Morak to the 28th Special Session of the UN General Assembly

Die Presse (01/24/05)

Mr. President,
Mr. Secretary-General,

Elie Wiesel reminded us that we must speak out so that the world listens, that we must speak out so that the world learns. Sixty years ago the victims of Auschwitz were waiting in vain for the world to speak out. This must never happen again.

Sixty years ago when the Allied troops entered the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps, the world was shocked by the atrocities that came to light. Mankind’s understanding of history and of the degree of evil human beings are capable of has never been the same since.

Since then, the day of liberation of the concentration camp, January 27, has been a day of commemoration and a reminder: Auschwitz, the largest extermination and concentration camp has become a symbol for the Holocaust and many nations commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz with a special Holocaust remembrance day.

This commemorative Special Session of the General Assembly of the world organization, that was founded to prevent the reoccurrence of such monumental crimes, is of particular importance. Austria has actively supported the holdings of this Special session. We thank the Secretary General for his efforts to make this possible.

Standing here as a representative of Austria, I feel two emotions - the agony of knowing that our country lost so many of its Jewish citizens to the Holocaust, and the pain of realizing that far too many Austrians took part in this greatest of all crimes.

More than 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed by the National Socialist regime. They were deported to places of unspeakable horror, where, we must admit, some of their neighbors might have marched them into gas chambers, lined them up against execution pits, or starved them in ghettoes.

Auschwitz stands for the destruction of all human values that mankind took pride in: The killing of 1.35 million Jews, 20,000 Sinti and Roma and 100,000 other inmates, persecuted by the National Socialist regime on racial and political grounds, or simply for being different, represents a break with civilization itself.

The commemorations of the 60th anniversary of liberation demonstrate that Auschwitz has its importance not only for the remembrance in European countries but also as a place of universal remembrance. Today it stands on a global scale for the disastrous consequences of tyranny and the contempt for the value and dignity of the individual human being.

Memorials at places where the most heinous crimes of the Nazi regime were committed help us to realize the dimension of the events and to connect the inconceivable number of victims of the Nazi genocide with the fate of individual persons.

Memorials are important, but after all, they remain where they are. Education is a far more powerful tool. Education reaches into every school and every home. Our young people, representing our own future, might be taught that no country can achieve any degree of progress or development without respect for human rights and for the dignity of the individual. This is the lesson and the legacy that the memory of Auschwitz is handing down from generation to generation.

That is why Austria is an active member of the "The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research." Governments comprising the Task Force have committed themselves to the implementation of national policies and programs in support of Holocaust education, remembrance and research.

Austria successfully initiated national programs; for instance, the program "Never Forget," provides for lecture visits by Holocaust survivors, or a program for teachers called "National Socialism and the Holocaust." More than 15,000 Austrian students participated in the "Letter to the Stars" project, where students, together with survivors or their descendents, researched the individual life stories of Holocaust victims.

Auschwitz is an historical site of global relevance and has for each nation its specific importance. For Austria it is the commemoration of the victims of National Socialism and the Holocaust, the commemoration of Jews, Roma and Sinti, the victims of euthanasia, homosexuals and the opponents to the NS regime.

It took Austria a long time to grasp the complexities of its own history and to understand that Austria, which ceased to exist as an independent country after the Anschluß, was not just a victim of the Nazi regime, but that Austrians were also among the perpetrators and that many supported, or at least, acquiesced, in the measures of persecution. For that reason, Austria acknowledges its share of moral responsibility. For too long we have all too voluntarily accepted the statement in the declaration adopted by the Allies in Moscow in 1943 that declared Austria as the "first free country to fall victim to Hitler aggression" and neglected that the same declaration reminded Austria "that she has a responsibility which she cannot evade for participating in the war on the side of Hitler Germany."

The Nazi regime not only committed crimes against humanity on an unprecedented scale in the history of human civilization, it is also responsible for the greatest organized robbery of all times. Only in the last few years did we begin to understand the enormity of the material losses that the victims of Nazi persecution had to suffer.

After the war Austria made serious efforts of restitution and compensation and much was actually done. Only after many decades did we come to realize that not everything had been done and that there were gaps and deficiencies in our restitution and compensation efforts. In order to remedy this situation, the Austrian Government started comprehensive efforts to that effect and we trust that these efforts, supported by all political parties and the Austrian society at large, will bring at least some measure of justice to victims of National Socialism, although they came late, too late for so many.

If we speak of moral responsibility with regard to the past, it is also incumbent upon us to draw the right lessons from the past and to address the continuing scourge of anti-Semitism. Austria, joining international efforts, is conscious of its responsibility and undertakes a broad spectrum of measures to fight anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other forms of racism and intolerance at all levels. For instance, a project in cooperation with the "Anti-Defamation League" focuses on "sensitization" and "anti-bias" training for our police forces. The program has been made mandatory, so that today, all young policemen and policewomen undergo this training.

Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we are made aware of what we lost and what was destroyed, and of the benchmark of what we are now doing and what we must do to preserve the legacy of the millions killed in Auschwitz and elsewhere by an inhumane regime and to create a more just and a more democratic society.

The victims deserve no less than that.

Thank you, Mr. President