UNITED NATIONS — UN officials and top diplomats, ambassadors, educators and members of the public will meet in the UN General Assembly Hall on Monday to hear Holocaust survivors’ accounts of suffering and loss and mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, perhaps the most notorious of the Nazi concentration and extermination camps.
Monday marks the annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and it kicks off the four-day event, “75 years After Auschwitz — Holocaust Education and Remembrance for Global Justice,” on the UN’s Manhattan campus.
It is both a somber affair for reflection on one of the world’s darkest chapters — one that saw the extermination of 6 million Jews — and an opportunity, advocates said, to help prevent another genocidal campaign from happening.
“We believe that education is the most important thing to prevent these types of holocausts in the future,” said Mark Berez of Dix Hills, who serves as president of The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights in Manhattan, referring to mass slaughters in places such as Sudan and Syria, which occurred since the horrors of the Nazi crimes. “If we teach enough kids how to respect each other, we will make sure that history does not repeat itself.”
Berez, whose mother survived despite being sent to several concentration camps, including Auschwitz — much like Olga Lengyel — said TOLI was founded precisely to inform people about the Holocaust. It hosts seminars featuring Holocaust survivors at schools and teaches educators who incorporate the material into their curricula.
Berez said he was dismayed to learn that young people more often now than in past years don’t know how many people perished during Adolf Hitler’s racist campaign of world domination that started World War II. The war lasted from 1939 to 1945 and claimed, historians have said, between 50 million and 85 million lives. It devastated Europe and ended shortly after the United States detonated two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Lengyel, a Hungarian Jewish woman, was sent to Auschwitz in 1944 with her husband, two children and her parents. She was the only member of her family to survive. In 1947, she wrote a memoir, "Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz."
The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights has educated about 3,000 teachers to date by bringing them to training sessions over a summer in New York, as well as 15 other states and even European countries, Berez said, adding that the UN commemoration is one of many around the world.
“We have the UN next week,” he said. “We had it in Israel a couple of days ago. They have it in Auschwitz. Anytime you talk about it, and anytime people listen, you send a message that you cannot forget. You cannot let history be forgotten. There was a lot of suffering and we can’t have it again.”
The week at the UN begins at 11 a.m. Monday with the memorial ceremony, where Holocaust survivors Shraga Milstein and Irene Shashar will share their testimonies and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will speak, along with ambassadors to the UN from Russia, Germany, Israel and the United States.
The rest of the week consists of a variety of events including exhibitions on today’s remaining Holocaust survivors, Jewish historians and academics who safeguarded evidence of attacks on Jews, the role that “ordinary people” played in the Holocaust — whether they helped or hindered the massacre — a discussion on hate speech and Holocaust denial today, and a film screening.
Vicki Fabisch of Southampton Town, who serves as development associate for TOLI, described last year’s UN events as emotional and powerful.
“It was very moving, very inspiring,” said Fabisch, who will be attending again this year, along with Syosset native and TOLI associate director Jennifer Lemberg. “I just sat there and I said to myself, ‘This happened so many years ago and yet, it’s still so powerful to hear the secretary-general paying his respects and these survivors still remembering detail after detail of what they went through even though it was so many years ago.’ It was very moving.”