Address by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on Holocaust Memorial Day
The Holocaust was a unique historical event, not just because of the unprecedented depth of its inhumanity, but because of the explicit purpose and iron resolve of its perpetrators, which was to exterminate an entire people. Between 1939 and 1945 six million Jews perished in the Holocaust as well as millions of others, annihilated because of their ethnicity, their disability, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs or their political affiliations. The orgy of murder which was the Holocaust respected neither age nor gender, class or creed but it was hugely focused and concentrated on one distinct ethnic group, the Jewish people.
We are fortunate and privileged to have a small number of Holocaust survivors here in Ireland who give generously of their time and energy to bring their personal stories and those of their families to the knowledge of future generations by speaking in our schools and to the wider community for whom the Holocaust will ultimately pass from memory to history.
I would like to personally salute and acknowledge this evening, members of that survivors group here present:
These special guests are witnesses as well as survivors their presence says more about this tragic story than any words you will hear tonight.
I would also like to welcome everyone who has taken the time and trouble to join us here and especially those who have travelled considerable distances from all over Ireland, England and Europe to attend this evening’s commemoration. On behalf of the Government I would particularly like to welcome those representatives of political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly who have joined us at the Commemoration tonight.
Holocaust Memorial Day is now firmly established in the Irish national calendar. It purpose is to cherish the memory of all those who perished in the Holocaust and to learn lessons from it. This important annual event serves as a reminder of the dangers of racial hatred and provides lessons from the past that are relevant today. It is an inclusive and comprehensive ceremony as it honours the memory of all of the victims— not just the six million Jews who perished, men women and children, in that terrible prolonged atrocity but also the millions of other victims. The inclusion of all victim groups is fundamental to the Commemoration in Ireland and their being remembered here has set a precedent for other countries to follow.
In 2003, An tUachtarán, Mrs Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, visited the former concentration camp at Majdanek in Poland. Her visit raised our people’s awareness about the Holocaust. Subsequently with the establishment of the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland in 2005, Holocaust education and awareness has developed considerably in this country. My colleague, Ms Mary Hanafin, Minister for Education and Science, has also recently visited the former concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her Department is ensuring that Irish children are more aware of the Holocaust and Holocaust Memorial Day through the Primary Curriculum Support Programme and the Civil, Social and Political Education Programme at post primary level in cooperation with the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland.
In recognition of these recent developments, the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research has invited Ireland to make application for membership. At the December 2007 Plenary Session of the Task Force’s international conference held in Prague, our Department of Foreign Affairs outlined the commitment of the Irish Government to making a contribution to the important work of the Task Force. A representative of the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland also spoke in support of the application and Ireland has been granted Observer Status pending progression of the application for full membership.
At this point I would like to particularly commend the work of our Holocaust Educational Trust. It is an entirely voluntary organisation and a national charity. Since its establishment in 2005, the Trust has achieved a great deal in developing and supporting Holocaust education and awareness in Ireland at all levels of education and in the wider community. The Trust educates and informs about the Holocaust in order to discourage antisemitism and all forms of intolerance in Ireland and it is an organisation worthy of support.
The Crocus Project (an Tionscnamh Cróca in the Irish Language) introduced, by the Trust, is a uniquely Irish initiative that is intended for pupils aged eleven or twelve years and upwards. The Trust provides schools with yellow crocus bulbs to plant in Autumn in memory of the one and a half million Jewish children and the tens of thousands of other children who died in the Holocaust. It has proved to be a tangible way to promote awareness and stimulate discussion about discrimination. In Ireland, the crocus blooms at the end of January around the time of International Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January). The yellow flowers recall the yellow Star of David which Jews were forced to wear as a badge of shame. The Trust makes available guidelines and resources to support teachers in this activity, complementing existing material on racism and interculturalism. The children’s involvement in planting the bulbs and watching the flowers grow encourages ongoing learning about the importance of tolerance and respect. Over 300 schools on the island of Ireland participate in the Crocus Project as well as schools in Poland, Austria, the UK, the US, Malta and other European countries.
It is hoped that this project will become even more international in its scope, with children all over the world planting yellow crocuses in memory of those children who died in the Holocaust and learning lessons from their stories.
When a survivor speaks in a school, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform supports with the Holocaust Educational Trust of Ireland in distributing the Memorial Day booklets to participating pupils. Usually survivors speak to about 200 students per week (over about 15 weeks in the school year) and each pupil who attends the lecture takes home a booklet. In this way, 200 households in Ireland every week become aware of the Holocaust and starts to learn about it.
Study of the Holocaust is becoming much more widespread in Ireland. It is an optional course on the curriculum and students and teachers are opting for it in increasing numbers. Study and research into the subject is also beginning to attract students at our universities.
Holocaust Memorial Day and this commemoration provide us with an opportunity to remember all those who perished and to honour all those who survived. It is through events such as this that we can seriously commit ourselves to remembering the lessons of history and maintaining a tolerant and inclusive society in Ireland into the future.
27 January 2008