NEW YORK - Sixty years after the liberation of Auschwitz, a cantor chanted El Male Rahamim yesterday at the UN General Assembly, ending an historic special session that commemorated the victims of the Holocaust. At the same time, speaker after speaker wondered why the vow "never again" was not enough to prevent the genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur.
Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Laureate, was the keynote speaker, a rare appearance by a non-statesman or diplomat to speak from the podium of the body that was created in the wake of the horrors of World War II.
"If the world had listened, we may have prevented Darfur, Cambodia, Bosnia and naturally Rwanda," Wiesel said. "We know that for the dead it is too late. For them, abandoned by God and betrayed by humanity, victory did come much too late. But it is not too late for today's children, ours and yours. It is for their sake alone that we bear witness."
He ended his poignant speech with a dramatic moment, a silent stare out at the diplomats and TV cameras watching, and then asked, "But will the world ever learn?"
His speech was one of the highlights of the special session that was initiated by Israel, promoted by the U.S. and energetically undertaken by Secretary General Kofi Annan as an important event meant to remember "the Jews and others" who were murdered at Auschwitz and throughout Europe during the Nazi reign of terror.
But while Wiesel's speech was dramatically poignant, and the speeches by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher, and U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz - who lost most of his family in the Holocaust - were given particular attention by attending diplomats and the guests in the packed galleries, it was the cantor's prayer ending the memorial that struck the most dramatic moment.
UN protocol prohibits any prayer from being recited in the General Assembly plenum, but Annan, said a senior UN official, decided that the unique nature of the event and its special character made it possible to break protocol and allow the traditional Jewish memorial prayer.
Ten foreign ministers and 30 senior officials from various countries took to the podium to speak at the special session.
"For my country," said the German foreign minister, the Holocaust "signifies the absolute moral abomination, a denial of all things civilized without precedent or parallel." And he assured Israel that it could "always rely" on support "because the security of its citizens will forever remain a non-negotiable fixture of German foreign policy."
Shalom, speaking in Hebrew, said that "by convening this special, historic session today, we are honoring the victims, demonstrating a sense of appreciation for the victims and expressing gratitude to the liberators. The fact that so many survivors came to Israel and played a role in building the country is proof of the wonderful prophecy of the prophet Ezekiel about the resurrection of the dry bones."
Shalom noted that "the brutal extermination of a people began not with guns or tanks but with words systematically portraying the Jews and others as not legitimate, something less than human."
An impressive 156 of the 191 member nations voted in favor of holding the session, and UN officials were pleased to point out that countries such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Jordan and Egypt were among those in favor. Moreover, more than 100 ambassadors and foreign envoys were in the plenum for the morning-long session, including a senior official from Iran's legation, a representative of Iraq, and the PLO observer.
The gallery was packed with Jewish organizational leaders who were invited as special guests of the event.
Annan held a reception before the event for the foreign ministers and senior officials who were attending, and Jewish community leaders from around the world. Holocaust survivors Maj. Gen. (res.) Yossi Peled and former Knesset speaker Dov Shilansky were part of the official delegation led by Shalom.
While outside the plenum the UN carried on its routine business, few inside the great hall of the General Assembly could deny that there was something extraordinary taking place, as the world gathered to pay its respects to the Jewish people for their losses in World War II.
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