As part of its annual commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, B’nai B’rith International convened Jewish and Christian leaders to reflect on the Holocaust in a forum at U.N. headquarters in New York City on Jan. 27, the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
B’nai B’rith International Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin; Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches; and Bishop Gerald T. Walsh, rector and president of St. Joseph’s Seminary addressed members of the Jewish community, including several Holocaust survivors, clergy and interreligious professionals, and foreign diplomats on the past, present, and future of interreligious relations.
Following opening remarks by Allan J. Jacobs, B’nai B’rith chairman of the executive, greetings were offered by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, papal nuncio and permanent observer of the Holy See at the United Nations, and Ambassador Martin Palouš of the Czech Republic.
Demetrios, who chairs the conference of leading Orthodox bishops in America, gave a personal account of his experience during World War II in Nazi-occupied Greece. A native of Thessaloniki, Demetrios vividly recalled the atrocities inflicted upon his Jewish neighbors, who famously represented a significant part of the local population for centuries. Demetrios stressed the importance of forming strong interreligious bonds in order to assure that such horrors never take place again.
“In ecumenical meetings and at other occasions, we talk about coexistence via tolerance,” Demetrios said. “Not enough. Tolerance is a minimum… Tolerance is something that might not last under heavy pressures. So what we need is a coexistence beyond tolerance, living together.”
In his statement, Kinnamon—a Protestant clergyman leading an ecumenical body that encompasses churches with a combined membership of 45 million Americans—related his first substantial education on the inhumanities of the Holocaust. In a description of his voyage through Israel as a student alongside a Jewish companion, Kinnamon emphasized the importance of viewing both the past and present through the eyes of others and the need for Christians to stand with Jews in opposition to intolerance.
“Anti-Semitism has been on the increase in Europe over the past decade,” Kinnamon said. “It won’t do simply to chalk this up to frustrations over the continuing conflict in the Middle East, because whatever Christian concerns may be concerning particular Israeli policies, Christians must speak out loudly and stand firmly against anti-Semitism whenever and wherever it is experienced.”
Walsh, a member of the committee for Catholic-Jewish dialogue of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, emphasized the importance of valuing the lessons of the past and teaching them to younger generations, adding that ignorance to learn from previous errors puts the future in jeopardy.
“The Catholic church wants all Catholics, and indeed all people everywhere, to learn from the past,” Walsh said. “Our hope is that the lessons of the past will help Catholics and Jews come to the realization of those universal goals that are found in their common roots.”
Mariaschin capped the day’s conversation with a reminder that an anti-Semitic threat still looms today, including attacks on Israel at the United Nations and Holocaust deniers like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“The Holocaust has fundamentally impacted not just those who experienced the horror first hand, but the next generation, and the next,” Mariaschin said. “But some people of power and prominence, including at least one state leader, the president of Iran…has managed to at once doubt and mock the truth of the Holocaust while calling Israel illegitimate and solely a product of the Holocaust rather than the focal point of millennia of Jewish prayer and civilization.”
At the United Nations since its founding conference in San Francisco, B’nai B’rith International is the only major Jewish organization with an office exclusively dedicated to United Nations affairs and an active, accredited presence at U.N. institutions around the globe.
B’nai B’rith’s commemoration event at the United Nations coincided with several other remembrance ceremonies taking place around the world, also orchestrated by the organization.
In Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attended a commemoration ceremony at the Recife synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the Western Hemisphere.
The Argentine ministries of foreign affairs, education, justice, security, and human rights, as well as the Human Rights Secretariat, also partnered with B’nai B’rith International to host an event to commemorate the Holocaust in Buenos Aires. Additionally, at the city’s U.N. Plaza, six trees will be planted as a tribute to the six-million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
The U.N. event was organized by B’nai B’rith office of intercommunal affairs and U.N. affairs Director David Michaels.