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Thought for the day: We should commemorate together

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Thought for the day: We should commemorate together
by Leon LITVACK
20 November 2020

Seventy-five years ago today, the Nuremberg Trials opened. This series of twelve tribunals brought to justice those accused of orchestrating the Holocaust and other war crimes. They brought into our language the word ‘genocide’, meaning the extermination of racial and national groups. The trials set precedents for international law, and provided a legacy for posterity. The chief prosecutor at the war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda famously remarked: “Collectively, we’re linked to Nuremberg. We mention its name every single day.” It’s almost like an act of daily commemoration, in which what went on in that courtroom long ago continues to offer lessons for our time.

Some years ago, I visited that very site, court six hundred in the Palace of Justice, which is still in daily use. I sat there for quite some time, thinking about how those crimes against humanity were executed with so much planning and precision. I thought about the victims, who included members of my own family. I thought about how justice was meted out, in the very place where the Nazi Party held their infamous rallies. I also thought about the German people of today, and how they commemorate the events of the Second World War; and in that connection it was very moving for me, this past Monday, to see the Prince of Wales pay his respects at the Neue Wache in Berlin. It’s the country’s central memorial to the victims of war and tyranny, and at its centre is a sculpture of a mother holding her dead child, which reminds me of Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican, that sculpture that depicts the Virgin cradling the dead Jesus in her lap. The message I take away from the Berlin monument is that the victims of war and violence are not only the dead, but the living who are left behind, to grieve, seek answers, find personal resolution, and remember.

Mother with her Dead Son (Käthe Kollwitz). Source: Wikimedia Commons © Rafael Rodriques Camargo CC BY-SA

Acts of commemoration are essential to healing. They can entail visiting a building, shrine, plaque, gravesite, or other location that conjures up special significance for us. The Prince concluded his remarks this week [at 46:45] — in both German and English — with these words: “Let us reflect on all that we have been through together, and all that we have learned.” In thinking about our own conflict here in Northern Ireland, it’s important that we too should commemorate — together — and share lessons. It’s only in that way that we can use the past to strive for a better future.
Originally broadcast at BBC Radio Ulster on 20 November 2020. Transcript provided by the author.

Leon LITVACK
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