Sixty years ago, the forces of human decency liberated Auschwitz, and it was a stunning moment in the revelation of evil. Its images have made us all witnesses to the starving, tortured souls who had barely escaped the ovens, companions to the ghosts that haunt a site of depraved death and unspeakable horror.
So many books, museums and movies have examined the Nazi death camps that one editor, on reading one more book proposal on the subject, told me bluntly: "I'm 'Holocausted' out." Nevertheless, the stories and analyses continue. We must try to fathom the fathomless, to find an explanation for the inexplicable.
For all of the memorial services that have taken place since the darkness of the concentration camps came to light, this was the first year the United Nations General Assembly got around to organizing a memorial service to reflect on the meaning of the lives and deaths of those who perished in the Holocaust. Kofi Anan, the secretary-general, told the assembly that the memorial holds specific significance "because the founding of this Organization was a direct response to the Holocaust; our charter and the words 'untold sorrow' were written as the world was learning the full horror of the death camps."
Those facts have been lost on many member states of the U.N. While the memorial service suggests a change of heart at the General Assembly - 150 nations, including Arab and other Muslim countries - the U.N. has a sordid history of encouraging malicious hatred of Israel.
In 2001, a World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, became an occasion for one mean and dreary diatribe after another equating Zionism with racism. Most insidious of all were the comparisons of Israelis to Nazis, between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz. These comparisons have been picked up since and often repeated among the intellectual and media elites in Europe.
But there was none of that at the United Nations memorial service this week. "The tragedy of the Jewish people was unique," Kofi Anan said in a speech. To underscore the uniqueness of the service, the assembly listened to Israel's "Hatikva," the first time a national anthem has been played at the U.N.
The service, unique and special, will hardly replace angry and bitter partisanship at the United Nations. But the service was significant in recognition of tragedy, of mourning the grim deaths of innocents, of applying the lessons for the living, of paying tribute to the contributions of the Jewish people.