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.
"We have agreed today to set aside contemporary political issues in order to reflect on those events of 60 years ago in a spirit of unanimity," U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who lost family in the Holocaust, told the Assembly. "But let us do so with a unanimous resolve to give real meaning to those words 'never forget.'"
That will require constant vigilance. Even as the United Nations commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz, world leaders, including Vladimir Putin, planned another commemoration at the site of the camp. But he might have started the commemoration at home. Certain extremist Russian lawmakers called for "the prohibition in our country of all religious and ethnic Jewish organizations as extremist." President Putin has encouraged religious tolerance, but rights groups have criticized his administration's refusal to prosecute anti-Semites.
Will we ever eliminate anti-Semitism? Probably not. But public pressure and appeals to the indomitable spirit toward tolerance can defeat anti-Semitism. Natan Sharansky, the Jewish dissident who spent nine years in prison in the Soviet Union, offers a glimmer of hope. Eleven years after he was freed and became Israel's minister of trade and industry, he returned to Russia to visit the prison where he was interrogated. Friends thought it masochistic, but that's not how he saw it. In his book, "The Case for Democracy," he describes how the visit inspired him.
"Twenty years ago, in this very prison, the head interrogators of the KGB, the most powerful organization of the most powerful empire in the world, told me again and again that the movement for Soviet Jewry was dead, that the dissident movement was finished," he says. "Twenty years later the KGB has disappeared, the Soviet Union has disintegrated, global communism has collapsed, over one millions have left the big prison called the USSR, and hundreds of millions of people are free."
Elie Wiesel brought the commemoration of the Holocaust full circle, urging trials and punishment of those who teach, preach and practice suicide terrorism as a means to kill Jews, Christians and other "infidels": "The past is in the present, but the future is still in our hands."