Launch of The Rescuers exhibition

The Rescuers exhibition was officially launched on Wednesday 25 July 2012 by John Searle, Chairperson of the Board of the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, who gave a moving speech highlighting how important it is to acknowledge the people who choose the path of good in the face of evil.

Below is the full transcript of John Searle’s speech.

Pauline Rockman OAM, president of the Jewish holocaust Centre, JHC curator Jayne Josem, Leora Kahn – curator of The Rescuers exhibition, Faina Iligoga – (Survivor of the Rwandan Genocide), Floris Kalman  (Holocaust Survivor), members of the diplomatic corps, politicians,  Karen Toohey, acting Commissioner, VEOHRC, Nina Bassat President of JCCV & distinguished guests.

Let me begin by welcoming you all here this evening and by paying tribute to the traditional owners of this land and their elders past and present. In the context of this evening’s subject matter, I think it is appropriate to record that our own country’s historical treatment of our indigenous population often fell well short of acceptable human behavior.

Genocide is defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. It includes killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Tonight the intention is to pay tribute to those who risked their lives in the midst of genocides to help those victims under attack.

There is something almost unnatural/eerie about the fact that the people we are honouring here this evening are people who in one view have done no more than what should be expected or even demanded of them. They have assisted fellow human beings in trouble. They have come to the rescue of other human beings who are being relentlessly attacked and senselessly persecuted. But the gravity of the situation, and the risks involved meant that their deeds were truly enormous in stature. How many of us would risk our life to help someone when we knew the outcome should we be caught.

The perpetration of genocides surely says something about the frailty of mankind that allows such horrors to occur. By contrast, the actions of the rescuers, being so extraordinary say something about our strengths and must represent a glimmer of hope and optimism for us. Mankind has shown time and time again how difficult, almost impossible it is for people en masse not to be led along, not to be compliant, and  moreover to actually be complicit in wrong doing rather than having the strength of character or bravery to confront evil, stare it down, and overcome it. The urge to bury our heads in the sand and to look after ourselves and our own interests is indeed strong. But there remains an obligation on every one of us to ensure that not only we, but others also act in a way that is demanded of us, that is proper, humane, moral and intrinsically right.

Is it appropriate that we talk of bravery tonight? In the midst of genocides, many people had to display this quality in circumstances where they had no choice. Be they inmates of the death camps, or watching their families put into ghettos, then on to transports or watching their children taken from them, there was nothing they could do; they were truly victims. And yet, in the face of such nightmares, from which there would never be any awakening, so much bravery was displayed. The mother who shielded her young child’s face from the certain impending doom, whilst all the time reassuring and comforting the child. The young adults who tried to fight back and protect the others. The elderly, who sacrificed themselves in the hopes that the rest of the family would not be discovered and thus spared the horrors.

For them, they were thrust into the situation; truly innocent victims of circumstance and yet their bravery should be recalled.

But others chose to put themselves into a predicament that required bravery. But it was not just bravery that was displayed. It was a love of fellow people,  an understanding of right from wrong, and a deep rooted conviction and belief system that saw them defying orders, defying authority and defying military might. In doing this, they risked not only all their possessions and welfare, but also their very lives and the lives of their own loved ones. It is these people that we are here tonight to remember and to honour; the rescuers.

The rescuers had a choice. Like so many others they could have looked away, remained compliant and stayed silent. How remarkable, that they took the actions they did.

In our community the names, Raoul Wallenberg, Irena Sendler, Oskar Schindler and others are well known. They are called the Righteous among the Nations (Hebrew: חסידי אומות העולם‎, khassidey umot ha-olam“.

But all of the people who risked their lives to help the victims of these atrocities deserve to be so remembered – for they are all righteous among the nations.

When talking about the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia and wherever else such unspeakable deeds took place we need to be cognizant of the fact that so many millions of people were killed and what that really means. We need to look beyond the statistics that can become faceless and sterile. To say that 6 million Jewish lives were destroyed in the holocaust is not sufficient. We have to be cognizant of the genocide of the Romani: 200,000–500,000 although some estimate the number to be more than a million. Our heads must hang in sorrow as we think of the 200,000 people with disabilities, the 2 to 3 million Soviet POWs, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 15,000 homosexuals and small numbers of mixed-race children (known as the Rhineland bastards), all senselessly massacred.

During the genocide in Rwanda it is estimated that 800,000 – 1 million people were killed and in Bosnia it was tens of thousands – In the Srebrenica massacre alone 8,000 people were robbed of their lives. In Cambodia it was 1.7 – 3 million people that were slaughtered. But these are mere figures; they do not say enough. We have to understand what it really means. We have to think of the three-month-old baby boy who was machine-gunned to death in his crib in Srebrenica. We have to know that the oldest victim in that massacre was a 96-year-old woman; can we ever forget her?

Know of the mother being told to make her child stop crying, and when it continued to cry the perpetrator taking the baby in front of the mother, slitting its throat, and then laughing.

Never forget the medical experiments performed in concentration camps. Dyes injected into the eyes of twins to see whether it would change their color; twins literally sewed together in attempts to create conjoined twins.

Imagine experiments conducted where sections of bones, muscles, and nerves were removed from the subjects without use of anesthesia or where people were immersed in freezing water to see how long they could survive.

We have to realize that within these statistics are the millions of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts and children. There are entire families that have been removed from the face of the earth, families left with only one survivor, lives that have been shattered, destinies destroyed and futures forever wiped out. And not just for those individuals but for the generations that never had the opportunity to follow.

It is in this context that we must comprehend not only the horrors that have been inflicted on so many people but also begin to appreciate the magnitude of the actions of the rescuers. It was the rescuers who saw fit to act contrary to those in control, to act against the prevailing tide and to acknowledge the evil that was going on around them. It was the rescuers who were brave enough to stand firm against that evil. It is within a world that allowed such a mindset to prevail and allowed such atrocities to occur that the actions of the rescuers must be valued. There could be no doubt as to what would happen to them if caught as it has been said, betraying their own people.

For every life that was saved, future generations will blossom and bear fruit and for every life taken, the future of so many worlds ended.

There must be some messages that can be salvaged from these episodes of death, destruction and discrimination which illustrate human behavior that can pose a threat to mankind’s very existence. The message comes from the actions of the rescuers.

Let me tell you a story of a teenage boy, who separated from his family, found himself firstly in Auschwitz and then on forced labour details. While standing in the freezing cold, digging holes that were later filled in, this boy observed an SS officer come up to the supervising German sergeant to discuss something. With no more than boyhood curiosity the teenager momentarily stopped his digging to observe the two men talking. Upon noticing that the boy had stopped, the SS officer drew his pistol to execute the boy. The German Sergeant however stopped him, saying that the boy was a good worker and he was needed. Let me tell you something, that sergeant knew that the boy was one of an unending supply of laborers at his disposal. There was nothing outstanding about that boy’s working talents. He was after all, digging holes. Yet that boy was special, because he was another human being and in the eyes of that seargent, he did not deserve to die, simply because he was Jewish.

To me, that boy was also very special because he was my father. If not for the actions of the sergeant, neither I nor my brother could have been born. We could not have established our own families and forever, the line of my father’s family would have been exterminated from the face of the earth.

So we learn a lesson. Yes, the Germans committed unspeakable atrocities, but we cannot forget that there were also some good Germans, some decent Germans who in their own way earned the badge of a righteous amongst the nations.

We learn that we can never judge the whole by the actions of some, even if the evil doers are the majority.

During tonight’s event we are remembering 3 categories of people.

There are the victims of these horrific atrocities, many of them cut down in their prime of life who we can never forget.

There are those who survived the atrocities, who witnessed unimaginable events, endured suffering beyond description some of whom live amongst us in Victoria and who, with their nightmares, their anguish, their pain must always be remembered.

There are those who swam, not just upstream but often against rising torrents of prejudice and hatred, tsunami like in proportion. They are the heroes who we are truly honouring this evening; the rescuers.

Perhaps indeed, there are other messages their actions bring to mind. Firstly, notwithstanding the extent of the horrors that can be committed, there are within the wastelands of desperation and the vast planes of human agony, small sparks of hope and optimism. These embers ignite small fires which are stoked by the brave individuals often prepared to risk not only their lives but the lives of their loved ones to do what is right.

We must look to the rescuers for inspiration and guidance. We must find courage in their actions because the ultimate responsibility rests on all of us to tend to those small fires, ensure they grow to be raging beacons of warmth and light for all humanity, so as to prevent these unspeakable horrors from ever occurring again.

Every single person has the obligation to speak out against racism, vilification, discrimination and brutality whenever or wherever it occurs.  If not, we too could soon find ourselves in the often quoted predicament:

When they came for the trade unionists, I said nothing, when they came for the blacks, I said nothing, when they came for the homosexuals, I said nothing and now that they have come for me, there is no one left to speak on my behalf.

And so it is now my duty to declare, this most extraordinary exhibition officially open. I refer to it as a duty because the word pleasure is inappropriate; that is in keeping with the presentation of a first prize in a competition.

This evening indeed encompasses a duty and it is a duty that imposes an obligation on every one of us in this room to remember what responsibilities and obligations fall upon us as members of the human race.

As for the rest of my father’s family, and so many millions of other people, their voices calling to us from the furnaces, from the killing fields and from the mass graves imploring us not to forget what has happened, not to allow it to ever happen again we must answer them with more than just the solemn pledge of “Never Again” but also with actions.

It is indeed our duty to make sure that the horrors of these genocides are never forgotten. It is our obligation to fight for what is right, to protect the basic dignities, entitlements and human rights that are owed to all people. We must instill within our children and within our friends an ability to distinguish between right and wrong, an appreciation of the need to speak out and act out for right and the confidence to do so. As Leora Khan says, we must learn and we must teach others to be upstanders and not bystanders. That, more than anything else is the legacy with which we are left from these atrocities and from the actions of the rescuers.

Finally, to Leora Khan and all of those at the centre responsible for bringing this remarkable exhibition to us, you are to be commended. You have shown a sense of understanding, of compassion and of empathy that is rarely seen. You are leading us by example and ensuring that our minds stay in touch with our duties and responsibilities. As long as there are people like you there is hope for a brighter future.

To quote from one of the rescuers featured in the exhibition:”it is true cowardice to not do anything for someone dying right in your sight”.