26 Jan 2018

'Holocaust survivors keep talking so we never forget'

4:10 pm on 26 January 2018

By Susan Devoy*

Opinion - When the Nazis took his parents from their home in Budapest, a small boy called Steven memorised the address of his aunt in Wellington: "head to New Zealand", his parents had told him.

Holocaust Remembrance Day held at Makara Cemetery in Wellington.

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

A tiny girl called Inge looked outside her home in Austria to see the neighbours hanging up huge swastika flags to welcome the Nazis to town.

A little boy called Ben had been hiding from the Nazis in a Hungarian convent when he was given up to them by a nun. He was only 8 years old when he first met the Angel of Death, Josef Mengele, in Auschwitz.

Tiny Vera Egemeyer saw Czechoslovakian Jews wearing yellow stars banning them from shopping, travel, school and work. Friends and neighbours stayed away.

Last year we launched New Zealand's first anti-racism campaign and it was in part inspired by our very own survivors of the Holocaust, the horrors they witnessed and the way they remember how those horrors began.

Our "Give Nothing to Racism" campaign encouraged everyday Kiwis to recognise the seeds of hate and to not be a bystander, but to call racism or prejudice out when we see it.

Throughout my time in this role some of the most unforgettable people I have had the privilege to meet are our own Holocaust survivors. Each and every one of them deserve a Victoria Cross for the bravery they've shown throughout their lives.

Because after they survived the death camps, the murder of their beloved family members and friends, they went on to spend their lives talking about the horrors they survived. They remember the swastikas, the Nazis, the marches and the millions of innocent people - tortured and murdered by a racist, hateful regime.

Many have told me as hard as it is to talk about, it is their duty as people, as parents, as Jews and as New Zealanders to make sure that we never forget what happened. They have kept talking so we can never forget.

Holocaust Remembrance Day held at Makara Cemetery in Wellington. Dame Susan Devoy was a guest speaker. Raising growing concerns around the influx of hate speech online.

Dame Susan Devoy at Holocaust Remembrance Day at Makara Cemetery in Wellington last year. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

These survivors remember that in the midst of that storm of hate, millions of everyday people stayed silent and looked the other way. They remember that instead of standing up for others, millions of neighbours, workmates, and friends chose to be bystanders.

Our survivors have told me many times that hate starts small and it grows when your neighbours, workmates and friends ignore it and do nothing. Hate triumphs when intolerance and prejudice become ingrained across an entire society, from the pages of newspapers to the halls of government, from schoolrooms to boardrooms.

This is why the wisdom of our own Holocaust survivors is what we needed to focus our campaign upon.

Hatred started in the streets Vera lived in, at the places Inge's family shopped at, in the classrooms Ben sat in and the newspapers Steven's family read.

Next month New Zealanders will be remembering another child from the Holocaust: a young girl who was murdered by the Nazis but whose words and testimony survived.

The Anne Frank Exhibition starts on the 9th of February at Auckland Museum, before embarking on a nation-wide tour. Anne Frank's story will travel for three years and as well as looking back at the horrors this little girl faced, it looks into the future and calls on us to think about discrimination, prejudice and apathy right now in 2018.

Hate grows when good people stand by and do nothing. Hate starts small, but so too does Hope.

It's up to everyday New Zealanders to stand up for peace and human rights here at home. It's up to everyday New Zealanders to stand up for each other.

Appointed Race Relations Commissioner in 2013, Dame Susan Devoy has been a vocal advocate for raising New Zealand's annual refugee quota and urging politicians, decision makers and everyday Kiwis to treat people from ethnic minorities with respect, humanity and mana. In 2016 she launched New Zealand's first nation-wide anti-racism digital campaign, "That's Us" that engaged with more than half a million people in just over a month.

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