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Remembering genocide

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Kurt Barling | 19:01 UK time, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

It wasn't until 1948 that Raphael Lemkin coined the term "genocide". Lemkin was the driving force behind the UN Genocide Convention.

The wholesale slaughter of the Jewish populations of many European countries by Nazi occupying administrations made it imperative that civilised nations recognised when tyrannical regimes were engaging in murder of groups simply because of their ethnicity.

Without an accepted set of principles it would be difficult to hold those responsible to account. Human Rights emerged as the key organising principle for protecting individuals from an oppressive state.

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Holocaust Memorial Day, which is now in its 10th year, takes place on the anniversary of the liberation of the labour and extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It is the culmination of an all year round effort to educate younger generations of the perils of allowing inhumane treatment to go unchecked.

The message is simple; once it starts you have no idea where it might end.

Jewish survivors of Nazi barbarism, like Gena Turgel, have dedicated much of their life to keeping the memory of man's inhumanity to man alive, as a warning to future generations.

Early in 1944 she arrived by rail cattle-box at Auschwitz with her mother and was shunted into the gas chambers.

Ordered to remove all their clothing they feared the worst. Instead of gas, water emerged from the shower heads. To this day she sees it as a miracle. She believed her survival had a purpose; to be able to be a permanent witness of how low man can sink.

It is no surprise then that the tragic stories associated with Jewish slaughter should have become so powerful a source of reflection on state inspired evil.

Increasingly though commemorations are used to reflect on the persistence of man's capability of wholesale cruelty from Pol Pot to Srebrenica from Rwanda to Dafur.

Curiously some massacres and "crimes against humanity" in the twentieth century are omitted from this roll call of genocide. The fate of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire of 1915 is the most glaring example.

There appears to be a collective amnesia of the expulsion of nearly 2 million Armenians, and the annihilation of many of those through starvation and brutality.

George Robertson QC goes as far as to claim that in Britain: "Parliament has been routinely misinformed by ministers who have recited Foreign Office briefs without questioning their accuracy".

One Foreign Office briefing from 1999 said "recognising the genocide would provide no practical benefit to the UK". It is what Robertson has called cynical "genocide denial".

It shows the political potency of the term itself and what, Ben Helfgott, who survived the forced labour camps under German occupation, says is the duty of witnesses to such catastrophes to continue to speak out.

In doing so it places government's under pressure, even embarrasses them. Above all says Helfgott it continues to give victims a legitimate voice in public debate.

Helfgott goes further and shows how keeping the memory alive can even give those murdered a voice.

When I visited him he showed me a set of ordinary portrait photographs of his friends taken in the Lodz Jewish ghetto in November 1942. On the back of each photograph was an extraordinary message from each of the teenage girls.

Lusia MillerOne, Lusia Miller, wrote; "It is terribly, terribly sad when young people are dying. Because everything, everything in me wants to live. Especially at such a young age, because at the age of 13 one begins to learn about life. Perhaps it is good that it is such an early age. I don't know...but I do not want to die".

Within 10 weeks these friends had been deported to the gas chambers of Treblinka.

Ending up in Bergen-Belsen in Germany when it was liberated, Gena Turgel married one of her liberators, British soldier Norman Turgel. Gena became known as the 'Bride of Belsen' and a symbol of hope in 1945.

She has since dedicated her life to hope. At today's memorial service at the Guildhall she lit a candle as she has so many times over the intervening years for the lights of lives extinguished by Nazi terror.

As long as there are those who want to deny genocide, there will always be a need for those who bear witness to the truth of their experiences. The tough question is can it all be kept going once that generation has gone?

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