Joseph Nsengimana, the Rwandan ambassador to the United Nations, was among 21 diplomats Saturday morning at Park East Synagogue’s Holocaust remembrance program. Three days later, he found himself sitting in for the president of the UN General Assembly to open the UN’s fourth annual Holocaust commemoration.
“I felt comfortable doing it because I am really committed to the commemoration of the Holocaust, because we at the UN also commemorate the genocide in Rwanda,” he said.
Nsengimana was referring to the 1994 Rwandan genocide — the killing in about 100 days of between 800,000 and 1 million Rwandan Tutsis by Hutu militia.
“It [the massacre] is not the same as the Jews, but the Rwandans have something in common to commemorate,” he said.
“For me, it was an honor.”
Numerous Jewish groups had protested plans to have the president of the General Assembly, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, address the commemoration because of what they viewed as his numerous anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements. In the past he has likened Israeli policies to “apartheid” and called for a boycott of Israel.
But just minutes before the program was to begin in the 700-seat Trusteeship Council — which was so crowded that 400 other attendees had to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television in another room — Brockmann’s name was removed from the dais. Moments later, Nsengimana slid into Brockmann’s seat and read his prepared remarks focusing on the importance of remembrance and education.
UN officials declined to explain Brockman’s sudden absence.
There were a large number of other diplomats in the room, Nsengimana note
d, which made this event all the more important in the UN because of the lessons that can be learned from the Holocaust and genocide.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the 650-family congregation’s spiritual leader, had singled Nsengimana out for particular recognition during his synagogue’s commemoration, which was attended by more than 500 and featured UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as the keynote speaker.
As four rows of Holocaust survivors looked on, Ban said the Holocaust must be not only a time to remember, but also an event from which lessons can be learned. He said he had just returned from the Middle East where he pressed for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I met a child and his family in Sderot, traumatized by falling rockets,” Ban said. “Never for a moment have I forgotten that a million people in southern Israel live in a daily state of terror. In Gaza, I saw the most appalling devastation. I saw the UN compound, still burning. I said to all I met, on both sides: This must stop.”
“War can be no answer,” Ban continued. “We need to strengthen the forces of peaceful coexistence and dialogue. … We here know that we can never entirely rid the world of its tyrants and its intolerance. We cannot turn all extremists to the path of reason and light. We can only stand against them and raise our voices in the name of our common humanity.”
Rabbi Schneier, himself a Holocaust survivor who was an alternate U.S. representative to the UN in 1988, echoed Ban’s words when he said the world “must take at face value the words of tyrants and dictators.”
“The plans for World War II that claimed the lives of millions and made Europe a blood-soaked continent were imbedded long before” the start of the war, Rabbi Schneier said. “On Kristallnacht 1938, I witnessed the burning of my synagogue. What started with the burning of books and Torah scrolls led to the burning of human beings.”
At the UN, the keynote speaker, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau — who is the former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, a Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council — recounted the persecution of the Jews in the last 70 years.
“The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a so-called religious leader, went in 1941 to Berlin to encourage the liquidation of the Jews,” he said. “But the rest of the world kept silent.”
Once Hitler saw that the world was prepared to permit the extermination of the Jews, he carried out his plan, Rabbi Lau said.
“Today, 64 years ago, the Red Army entered Auschwitz,” he said. “Sixty-four years is time to learn a lesson.”
But Rabbi Lau pointed out that 20 years ago two million children died of starvation in Biafra and that later one million people died in Kosovo.
He then pulled from his pocket a tiny newspaper clipping from 2007 in which a UN official was quoted as saying that 18,000 children die of starvation each day.
“Since this commemoration started, over 1,000 children have died in Asia and Africa — and this is happening 60 years after the Holocaust,” he said. “This is proof that we learned nothing from the Holocaust.”
Among the other speakers at the UN commemoration was Ruth Glasberg Gold, who recalled the brutality of the Romanian soldiers who rounded up the Jews from their homes and ordered them on forced marches. Their ferocity was such that it “appalled even the Germans.”
As her 11-year-old granddaughter, Ariel Gold of Raleigh, N.C., watched from a delegate’s seat, the elder Gold told of watching her father, brother and mother die while prisoners in the “small room of a partially demolished house.”
“My mother was the last one to die and her body was left there for two weeks, during which hungry dogs tore at her flesh,” she said as tears fell down her granddaughter’s cheeks.
Israel’s UN ambassador, Gabriela Shalev, also evoked tears when she spoke of her grandparents’ murder in Auschwitz.
“We have the responsibility to condemn those who educate children to murder and kill in the name of God,” she said.
And then, referring to Iran, Shalev said: “We have the responsibility to condemn any member state of the United Nations that calls for the destruction of another member state and engages in Holocaust denial.”