01/31/2011 12:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

UN Remembers Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion

Holocaust Remembrance Day has been observed at the United Nations on January 27th since 2006. This year, while snow blanketed New York City, closing schools as well as UN Headquarters, educational events about the Holocaust that had been arranged by my Department for that day sadly had to be postponed.

Yet, when I woke up that morning and looked out the window of my warm apartment at the scene outside, with the peaceful quiet a new snowfall brings, I was reminded that it had been a freezing, snowy January in 1945 in Oświęcim and Brzezinka, in a Poland that had been annexed by Nazi Germany. Many of us know them better by their German names -- Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest network of Nazi concentration and death camps. Over one million people, the vast majority of them Jews, perished there before it was liberated in 1945 on January 27th. Remembering all this brought me down, but, as I thought more about this day, I began to remember there was reason also for hope.

At the UN, we attach great importance to the fact that the Organization was founded on the ashes of the Holocaust and World War II. The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, containing the first legal definition of that crime, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, as was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, as Professor Yehuda Bauer recently said in The Hindu, "The Holocaust was unprecedented, and we had hoped that it would become a warning, not a precedent. But we have been proven wrong. It has become a precedent, and other genocides have followed it." Given its own history, and recent lessons in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the General Assembly on November 1, 2005 asked the UN to establish a program to encourage the study of the lessons of the Shoah to help prevent future acts of genocide. The Department of Public Information's "Holocaust and the United Nations" outreach programme, created in January 2006, honors the memory of the victims while helping to mobilize civil society for Holocaust education and remembrance, and it holds a week-long series of educational events the week of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

This year, the theme of our program is "Women and the Holocaust: Courage and Compassion." Why this theme? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Polish-Jewish historian who documented the Warsaw ghetto and was later executed along with his family and his protectors by the Gestapo, said in a diary he kept that "[T]he future historian will have to dedicate an appropriate page to the Jewish woman in the war. She will take up an important page in Jewish history for her courage and steadfastness. By her merit, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times".

In fact, faced with the unthinkable, these women were resolute in their effort to meet their families' needs and protect their children as best they could. As husbands, sons, and fathers were deported, traditional gender roles changed, placing greater responsibilities upon women in the family and community in the ghettos and often making the difference between life and death in the camps. They adapted to stay alive in the worst of circumstances. Many summoned the strength to join partisan groups.

It is past due that we call attention to this overlooked aspect of the Holocaust, to pay special tribute to the women who were persecuted, experimented upon, raped, murdered under the Nazi regime. To recognize and acknowledge their bravery and strength in the face of terrible suffering. And to learn from them.

As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday, the courage of Jewish and other women who died or endured during the Holocaust "continues to inspire. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us honour these women and their legacy. Let us pledge to create a world where such atrocities can never be repeated."

Some months ago, my Department launched a Twitter campaign asking contributors what message they would have sent Anne Frank had they been able to reach out to her through this medium as she remained in hiding from the Nazis. The many messages we received reflected courage, hope, and solidarity. Anne Frank herself said it so powerfully when she wrote: "It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart". That is the belief that animates the United Nations.

So, before I headed to work, as I looked out my window and saw mothers in this international city taking their children to Central Park in one direction or to Carl Schurz Park in the other to go sledding or build snowmen, I understood that the sacrifice of millions of mothers and children, of all the people, who died in or who survived the Shoah, made this nearly idyllic scene possible. If the world had not united to fight and end the atrocities of the Holocaust, it would look like a different, less humane world. We still need to unite, to fight rape as a weapon of war, to fight crimes against humanity, to truly be able to say about genocide "never again." But because of the strength and courage of these women, I know there is hope.