Speech of European Parliament President David Sassoli marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
Dear colleagues, Liliana Segre, Madam President of the Commission, Commissioners, honoured guests,
We are gathered here to remember the day 75 years ago when the gates leading to one of the places whose infamy will forever be part of our collective European memory opened. The Soviet Army had arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the gates opened on a death factory where a system based on obsessive time-keeping and efficiency was used to exterminate more than one-and-a-half million people and to cause unspeakable suffering and pain.
Opening those gates, like all the other gates which were opened one by one in the Nazi extermination camps, revealed to future generations just what people who have lost their sense of humanity are capable of.
But opening those gates also forced us to confront a number of questions: what does it mean to create an enemy in order to show that you have the power to annihilate it? What horrors can hatred employed in the service of a desire for untrammelled power give rise to? To what extent can sadism come to contaminate our societies? How powerful a force can instinct, unchained from conscience, be in leading us to revel in the feeling of having the power of life and death over others?
On that day in 1945, in Auschwitz, on European soil, the gates to the abyss opened.
Because in that place it was not enough to destroy people’s bodies, reduce them to smoke and ashes in order to eradicate any trace of their past, present and future. No, the aim was to crush people’s souls, deprive them of their identity, reduce them to a number tattooed on their bodies and use them, as President Simone Veil remembered, as ‘stuks’, as simple items of raw material.
In Auschwitz, the very essence of humanity was called into question by the determination to exterminate the Jewish people, and with them the Roma and Sinti people, political opponents, the Slavic peoples, homosexuals.
Auschwitz is the unspeakable. Recounting his experience of the concentration camps in his novel The Hell of Treblinka, Vasily Grossman wrote: ‘in his Inferno, Dante never imagined scenes such as these’.
But if hell is reserved for sinners, what sins were the children, the women, all those who were gassed and incinerated, who were tortured, insulted, humiliated, treated as expendable, guilty of?
Auschwitz embodies the negation of our civilisation; a civilisation which has Jewish and Christian roots, which has come face to face with the Islamic world, which brought forth the Enlightenment and built a society based on the rule of law, which fought against barbarism and in defence of human dignity, which sought to impart an idea of the beauty of each individual and of individuals living together in our towns and cities and in our countries; a civilisation whose own journey, guided by the desire for freedom, ended in front of the gates of Auschwitz.
Today, full of emotion and united in contemplation, we bow to all the victims of the Shoah and fulfil our duty to remember. We fulfil that duty because we know that Auschwitz was built by Europeans and that we today, as their descendants, must shoulder the burden of remembrance, because what happened then is still part of our reality today, and calls on us to accept responsibility.
What happened is part of our history. The Nazis were children of good mothers, of cosmopolitan families, of families which celebrated the Te Deum, of fathers who brought them up to be open-minded. But they were children who failed to react to what was happening around them, to make a stand, to grasp their own responsibility.
The Final Solution made the unimaginable imaginable; it showed that, given the right circumstances, anything which can be imagined can become reality.
Auschwitz, and all the other death factories scattered across Europe, embody a question which is fundamental to our society, to our civilisation, to our culture, a question which imposes obligations on us.
Above all, it imposes on us the obligation to act whenever we encounter violence and discrimination, whenever anti-Semitism and racism rear their heads in our societies. We must always see such phenomena for what they are, an attack on the dignity of the individual and the very idea of Europe.
And so, since otherwise it would be pointless to remember the liberation of Auschwitz, let us join together here today in saying once again: Nazism and racism are not matters of opinion, they are crimes.
Every time we read in the newspaper reports of acts violence, acts of desecration and insults, we must regard those acts and insults as being directed against each and every one of us. They are attacks on Europe and the values it stands for and they are manifestations of the two diseases afflicting the modern nation which are spreading throughout Europe: on the one hand, the sacrosanctity of borders, and, on the other, the search for a religiously, ethnically and culturally pure identity, which inevitably leads ‘outsiders’ to be seen as enemies.
Europe, by contrast, was founded, and will continue to be founded, on diversity, on the pluralism of voices, on political, religious and cultural pluralism. And it is for that reason that we should be grateful to Judaism, as it enabled us to develop the spirit of universalism which is central to our vision of the world.
In a Europe which has known absolute evil, we have succeeded in building an area of fraternity, friendship and democracy which we want to protect at all costs. That is why we are urging governments to be watchful and forceful in combating all forms of intolerance. The vandalism perpetrated in Jewish cemeteries, the attacks on synagogues and places of worship, the threats received by Jewish families in Europe and the intolerance encountered by minorities in the Member States are more than just childish acts of mischief.
Our Treaties spell all this out in black and white, and we call on the Commission and the Council to ensure that those provisions are indeed upheld. We have a responsibility to address these dangers. It has happened once. It could happen again. We must grasp the importance of having a clear historical conscience and always bear true witness to the events of the past. We must do this so as to counter the negationism and wilful forgetting that in some cases stem from crude opportunism. But our conscience must also be ‘vigilant’ and able to understand, prevent and intervene whenever the seeds of absolute evil are sown.
The Shoah would not have been possible without the complicity and cowardice of those who were alive at that time in Europe. Faced with such complicity and cowardice, one has to ‘think of oneself as another’, as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur put it. That ‘another’ is the skeletal figure from Auschwitz, Alberto Giacometti’s ‘Walking Man’, a man moving towards a future he hopes will be better. That ‘another’ is also the outsider who wants to join us in writing the history of Europe.
The Righteous, like Jan Karski and many others, who risked their own lives to save innocent souls from the abyss, must serve every day as a source of inspiration for our actions, because we always have a choice and it is our absolute duty not to choose indifference in the face of the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism and rejection of the other.
In short, we must accept the instruction given to us in the Bible, as expressed very simply in the Book of Leviticus (19:16), whose fundamental ethical force is recognised by believers and non-believers alike: ‘You are not to act against the life of your neighbour’.
This principle must guide our actions and enjoins us never to forget what happened at Auschwitz and to assume responsibility for passing on that historical memory. As the years go by and those who witnessed these events are no longer here to tell their story, it will be up to us and future generations to perform that task.
In one of his poems, Paul Celan wrote that ‘no one bears witness for the witness’. He was describing the almost sacred nature of what a witness can say about what they have seen, heard and touched, until what they witnessed becomes unspeakable.
We must all express our gratitude to Senator Liliana Segre, who is here with us today to bear witness.
When Gilles Deleuze said that he was writing ‘for the illiterate’, he did not mean that he was writing ’so that the illiterate could read’ but that he was writing ‘on behalf of the illiterate’ and acting as their spokesman and witness.
In much the same way, at Auschwitz and today in this Chamber, which is the voice of European democracy, we are bearing witness for the dead and fulfilling the duty, implicit in their sacrifice, of ensuring that their memory lives on.
Auschwitz is the unspeakable. I would like to believe, however, that through their testimony those who witnessed the unspeakable can move us and inspire us to choose the ethical path, to ensure that it never happens again.
To that end, I now give the floor to Liliana Segre. Hearing what she has to say will bolster our conviction that we must never remain indifferent. It is a great honour to have her here, and we consider it a marvellous gift that she survived Auschwitz and can help us understand, so that we never forget.