JERUSALEM – The murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis is a human tragedy that must not be forgotten regardless of one’s religion or nationality, said several Catholic participants in the first International Youth Congress on the Holocaust.
“This is not something that happened only to the Jewish people, but it happened to the human family. It happened to all of us,” said 17-year-old Augustina Dighiero-Neme, a Catholic from Uruguay. She was among more than 100 young people from 62 countries who took part in the three-day congress that began Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Lerato Matsio, an 18-year-old Lutheran from South Africa, said love for a fellow human is fundamental to all religions, and that entails not standing by quietly in situations of injustice.
Participants in the youth congress included Jews, Christians and Muslims who went through a rigorous selection process that included written essays and oral interviews. The congress, sponsored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, was held under the patronage of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
At the end of the congress – which included meetings with Holocaust survivors, lectures by leading Holocaust scholars, a meeting with Israeli political leaders and study sessions at Yad Vashem – the delegates signed a declaration affirming their responsibility to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust.
The young people spoke idealistically and earnestly about the roles they can take in their societies to combat discrimination and persecution and to help keep memories alive as the last of the Holocaust survivors begin to die. They spoke about the role of the media in perpetuating stereotypes and how young people can counter that. They said they found strength in meeting with other youths from around the world who also felt the importance of acting against injustices.
“We have to have this memory so it can’t be repeated,” said 18-year-old Sylvia Meza, a Catholic from Paraguay who said she had studied all her life in a Jewish school and had never felt any discrimination.
Dighiero-Neme said that as a non-Jew she had not studied the history of the Holocaust, but now she feels it should be studied by everyone because of its lessons for current events.
Lithuanian Catholic Rapolas Zlionis, 18, said: “The Holocaust can be regarded as an example of … how powerful a good or bad education can be, how propaganda can be used. People can often be manipulated (against a group they don’t like) with propaganda. The responsibility we have to distinguish between good and bad, with the importance of education and the power of propaganda, is always repeated in history.”
Matsio said that in times of strife and violence within a country other countries should have the right to intercede in some manner. She said the veto power given to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council often prevents any meaningful intervention, as in the case of the recent violent crackdown against demonstrations in Myanmar, when Russia and China vetoed any discussion about the situation there.
For some, the congress was the first time they were exposed to the Holocaust.
Jatta Modou, a 19-year-old Catholic from Gambia, said that, like him, most of his contemporaries had never heard of the Holocaust. But he said lessons learned from the Holocaust – about the violence of one group against another – could be used to perhaps prevent other genocides or violence.
“Even if we can change one thing, one person, that is changing something,” he said. “I can really change something.”