I had the chance this cold January week to go to a Holocaust Remembrance event at the UN. It was extraordinary. Even with a single digit temperature the cue to get in was robust. In orderly manner we visitors were ushered through security protocol and into the General Assembly Hall, a big light filled room for big thoughts. It is beautiful but not opulent, circles and their resulting metaphors are a repetitive theme in it’s design. Doors are such that the full room can be seated quickly, its functionality is kinetic. Say what you will about the UN but it exists, it has a place that is real, that is devoted to peace and understanding. In today’s world, just that I can write that feels good.
As guests we were given free reign of where to sit, “Just not in the very front rows please as they’re reserved for WWII veterans and holocaust survivors.” I found a seat in the gracefully arced rows, complete with a listening device for simultaneous translations and a tiny flat screen. I imagined myself a delegate from, oh say…France.
After a brief, old school diplomacy introduction given by a right proper British matron the Secretary-General to the UN as the ceremony’s first speaker, welcomed us. He paved the way for the roster of impressive speakers to follow and engaged us as active witnesses to the remembrances we were about to hear. He framed the act of listening as an essential part of the necessary journey to sustained peace. One after another, soldiers of good will gave their testimonies of hatred faced and overcome and of work yet to be done. We were warned against the dangers of indifference, apathy and inaction. Reminded that Hitler methodically attacked the most erudite and sophisticated, clear evidence that those modalities of thought were threatening to the advancement of his heinous vision. As if in direct defiance of that threat the stunning song “Who Am I” written by Madeline Stone was beautifully sung by a chorus of NY youngsters. With a call to “Never forget”, a most profound lesson came from 93 year old Auschwitz survivor, Marion Turski. Three years of savage beatings, frigid cold, acid pangs of hunger, constant lice, had taught him that the worst of it was humiliation. His antidote to arresting current and future hells the likes of which he survived, is the practice of empathy and compassion. Remarkable. I had the chance to meet Mr. Turski. This giant of a man had the presence of an Everyman. A normal guy I think in many ways who had, through cavernous tragedy, had greatness thrust upon him.
I left and didn’t seem to be alone in this, inspired, uplifted. I left awaking to thoughts about how I might reach for my highest self and put that into action in my daily walk as the day’s speakers had. I left vowing to never forget, to never grow numb to evil, to be especially watchful so as to call it out when it creeps, advancing too slowly for normal sight. The message of the day was to hold to the bright, loving and true…to rational thought and high ground as best we can. To live with and afford to others dignity, authenticity, vigor, purpose and gratitude. These elders had. Surely we should too.