Remembering to Look Forward:
Auschwitz, Argentina, and Genocide Prevention in 2013

By ALEX ZUCKER

Birkenau barbed wire

On this day 68 years ago, Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz–Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, created and operated by German Nazis. It is of course a day to remember. To remember the facts. To remember the horror. To remember the people. But it is also a day to remember to look forward.

More than 1.3 million children, women, and men lost their lives in the camp, according to the Auschwitz–Birkenau State Museum, which maintains the site for memorialization and education. The vast majority of the people killed there were Jews — murdered as victims of the crime that we now recognize as genocide. At the same time, tens of thousands of other people were also deported to Auschwitz to die because of their identity — Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war, homosexuals, and political prisoners. We remember them too on this day.

Each of the human beings slaughtered in Auschwitz–Birkenau, and killed in the Holocaust as a whole — beaten, worked, or starved to death, subjected to ghastly experimentation, raped, tortured, shot, hung, gassed and cremated — each of them came from a family. Each was somebody’s mother or father, sister or brother, daughter or son, wife or husband.

The testimonies of those who survived are one way we know of the suffering and commemorate the loss. Scholarly research helps us to understand how it happened, if less clearly or satisfactorily why. In fact we continue to discover new information about the Holocaust, and with it, our understanding of what happened continues to change.

Yet the promise that emerged from those events, the pledge of “Never Again,” remains to be fulfilled. That phrase, according to the pioneering Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, first appeared on signs put up by prisoners in Buchenwald at the end of World War II. Very quickly it came to be understood to mean “No More Genocide,” and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the first human rights treaty adopted by the United Nations, in 1948, seemed to represent a concrete and important step toward making good on that promise. Since then, however, not a decade has passed without a genocide or atrocity crimes of a similar scale taking place.

In 2008, the Auschwitz Institute organized the first running of its Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, named after the man who invented the term genocide and held on the grounds of the Auschwitz concentration camp, in cooperation with the Auschwitz–Birkenau State Museum. While the museum is focused on memorializing and educating about the past, the Auschwitz Institute’s mission — building a worldwide network of policymakers with the tools and the commitment to prevent genocide — looks squarely toward the future.

Our latest initiative — born in 2012 at the request of government officials themselves, with the Auschwitz Institute serving as catalyst — is the Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention. And today, in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are proud and excited to present a new model for organizing government to prevent genocide.

Argentina’s National Mechanism for Prevention of Genocide, conceived by the National Directorate on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the Ministry of Defense in collaboration with other national government institutions, is an attempt to put into practice the commitments Argentina undertook when it ratified the Genocide Convention in 1956.

Like the Atrocities Prevention Board created by the U.S. government last year, the Argentinean national mechanism provides for interagency coordination on the federal level. Unlike the U.S. board, however, Argentina’s proposal involves not only the federal government, but provincial (i.e., state) governments as well. Also unlike the U.S. model, it provides for ongoing training and development of education for all relevant civil servants in genocide prevention, human rights, and international humanitarian law, as well as “development of standards and criteria for evaluating mass media, communications, and public relations messaging.” Finally, it envisions coordination in policymaking and processing information with not only the UN but also relevant regional bodies.

The Auschwitz Institute does not believe there is only one way to prevent genocide. In every facet of our work, we support local solutions and insist that each state has the responsibility to develop a means of preventing genocide that makes sense for itself. We are encouraged to see a state like Argentina, with its own terrible legacy of state-sponsored atrocities, not only coming to terms with history but leading the way forward into the future.

So today, as we remember the horrors of the past, we may also take solace in knowing there is progress being made, and new ideas coming to life, in the effort to make “Never Again” more than a slogan.

Photo: Alex Zucker

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