European Commission Vice-President responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship
Never forget: Remembering the victims, learning from the past, continuing the legacy
Holocaust Remembrance Day
Brussels ,28 January 2013
Monsieur le Président du Conseil Constitutionnel,
Dear Mrs Pollak-Kinsky,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are here today to remember.
We are here today to learn.
We are here today to speak out.
Today, we honour International Holocaust Remembrance Day with this very moving exhibition on Room 28.
I would like to welcome Helga Pollak-Kinsky, one of the survivors of Room 28.
I would also like to personally welcome the relatives of Room 28 inmate Erika Stránská, who have travelled all the way from Brazil to be with us here today.
I extend my thanks to the President of the French Constitutional Court for joining us today – Merci pour votre présence, Monsieur Badinter!
Firstly, let us recall why we are here today – to remember those who perished in Europe's darkest hour. The Holocaust.
From 1942 to 1945, more than 50 girls passed through Room 28 in Theresienstadt, which today lies in the Czech Republic. Their only crime: being Jewish. Of those 50 girls, only 15 survived until the end of the war.
The book and the exhibit of Room 28 reflect many of the horrors of the time: a persecuted minority, childhoods snatched away, lives extinguished before their time. But look closer and you can see that this is above all a story of strength. A story of childhood friendships forged helping each other. Friendships which have lasted until this very day.
A story of heroic efforts by the brave adult guardians of Room 28 – like Eva Weiss and Fredy Hirsch – to provide the girls with the simple joys of childhood: education, creativity and joy. So that, even for a moment, they could stop being victims and just be children.
One of the girls, Ela Stein, wrote of the theatre productions organised by her guardians: "We didn't have to wear the yellow star on stage. When we were on stage, we were free."
Today, we remember the girls and their brave guardians.
We remember those who are with us today and those who are no longer with us.
We remember all those who perished in those dark times.
We must remember not only in our minds and in our thoughts, but also in our deeds and in our actions.
Because it is by remembering that we learn the lessons of the past and build a better future.
Stéphane Hessel, himself a survivor of the concentration camps, noted - and let me first say the original French - "L'Europe est née à Buchenwald". "Europe was born in Buchenwald". Indeed, he was right.
At the beginning of our European project, the Founding Fathers did not know what shape Europe would finally take, how many countries would eventually join or which Treaties would be signed.
At the beginning, the concerns of our Founding Fathers can be summed up in two simple words: never again.
Never again should future generations of Europeans have to experience what they experienced.
Thus our Union was conceived as the first step in a long journey, an attempt to learn from the past, to build a Europe that was united and not divided.
There have been many landmarks on the road to peace. In each Member State we have our own and there are some too which are common to all of us. From German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling silently before a memorial in the Warsaw ghetto, to the fall of the Berlin wall, all the way to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU last year.
At each and every step, Europe was learning, transforming itself and healing itself. Nations were learning to live together.
But Europe's journey is not only about peace between nations. It is more than that. It is about uniting people.
Please let me take this opportunity to say a few words in French on this subject.
Je voudrais dire quelques mots en français en présence d'un des grands protecteurs des droits de l'homme en Europe, Monsieur le Président Badinter.
Depuis la fin de la deuxième guerre mondiale, nous avons tiré les leçons du passé. Nous nous sommes engagés, nous Européens, pour la protection des droits et libertés en Europe. Aujourd'hui, l'Union européenne est reconnue pour sa détermination à faire respecter les droits fondamentaux et à assurer que plus jamais ces épisodes sombres de notre passé ne puissent se répéter.
Aujourd'hui, l'esprit qui a animé votre action, M. Badinter, en tant que Garde des sceaux en France, et qui a conduit à l'abolition de la peine de mort. Cette action, cet esprit, se reflètent dans la Charte des Droits Fondamentaux de l'Union Européenne.
Son premier article précise "La dignité humaine est inviolable. Elle doit être respectée et protégée." La dignité humaine est une des valeurs essentielles de notre Union.
Une autre valeur clé de notre Union, c'est la protection des minorités. Votre compatriote, le résistant et prix Nobel de la littérature Albert Camus a écrit "La démocratie, ce n'est pas la loi de la majorité, c'est la protection de la minorité".
En Europe, nous pensons que la façon dont on traite les minorités est la mesure d'une société.
En Europe, tous nos citoyens ont les mêmes droits immuables – entérinés dans notre Charte.
En Europe, nous condamnos fermement les actions qui bafouent les droits des minorités. Non seulement sur notre continent mais aussi au-delà de ses frontières.
As we can see, we have come a long way in Europe from the horrors of the Holocaust. But by no means can we be complacent.
Despite our efforts, acts of discrimination against all minorities are still a daily reality for many in Europe. The European Commission has recently noted with concern the rising levels of anti-Semitism in Europe. We have to remain vigilant.
And this brings me to my last point. We need people to speak out. To pass the important messages of the past onto the next generation.
To those with no experience, with no direct memory of the Holocaust. What the French call "un devoir de mémoire".
Because to be silent is to forget.
And to forget would be to invite the horrors of the past back into the present.
Later, one of the women of Room 28, Mrs Helga Pollak-Kinsky, will be speaking out and reading an excerpt from her diary for us.
Helga, thank you. Thank you for helping us never to forget.
Let me conclude by citing some words from the journal of one of the girls from Room 28, signed with the name Fiška:
"One day, it will be us who will have to protect others. So prepare yourself for the day when it will be your turn to repay the gift."
Today we repay that gift.
To the women of Room 28 and to those who continue their legacy, let me say that your lives and work are an inspiration. Through your work, you protect us from a return to Europe's darkest hours. May your words – and the words of those who are no longer with us – guide us on our journey.