More than 500 people came together at Belfast City Hall on Monday evening to participate in the regional Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) commemoration.
The event marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland in 1945, and the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Bosnia in 1995.
The commemoration, attended by Junior Ministers Gordon Lyons and Declan Kearney, was hosted by The Executive Office in collaboration with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Belfast City Council.
Keynote speaker at the event was Holocaust survivor Tomáš (Tomi) Reichental, who along with his family was held in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from 1944 – 1945. He is one of a dwindling number of survivors who are still able to share their testimony and is one of only three Holocaust survivors currently living in Ireland.
Mr Reichental regularly gives talks in schools, colleges and at various other events with the aim of educating people about what happened during the Holocaust so the people who died are remembered, and lessons are learned so it never happens again.
He said: “I didn’t speak about my experiences for more than 50 years, but now I tell my story in order to educate young people and make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. I am glad I have been able to share my story with so many people in Northern Ireland, and I look forward to many more visits in the future.”
During the event, Mr Reichental performed an act of commemoration by lighting a candle of remembrance and hope.
Junior Minister Lyons said: “As each year passes the poignancy and importance of the act of commemoration and remembrance becomes more significant. I believe that the testimonies of survivors like Tomi play an important role in helping us to understand what happened and to learn lessons for society today. Their testimony must never be forgotten. We must learn from this terrible history so that we do not repeat the sins of the past.”
Junior Minister Kearney added: “The theme for HMD 2020 is ‘Stand Together’. That is a very important message in today’s world. There must be no tolerance in our society and international community, for persecution, discrimination and inequality. The theme ‘Stand Together’, ‘Seasainís Le Chéile’, must be a moral and political call to action. It demands that we challenge and eradicate the mindsets and practices which perpetuate hatred, prejudice and division. But it must also serve as inspiration to ‘Stand Together’ in pursuit of a new vision for our world, which values all citizens with dignity and respect, regardless of creed, colour, culture, ethnic identity, sexual orientation or political persuasion.”
Speaking at the event, Councillor Daniel Baker, Lord Mayor of Belfast, said: “Holocaust Memorial Day is an important reminder of a terrible legacy, but one which should not be forgotten. Remembering the Holocaust and subsequent genocides provides us with an opportunity to reflect and remember all those who suffered. Today we are also mindful of the generations that have been lost because of the Holocaust and other genocides.”
Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, commented: “For the first time in many years, HMD ceremonies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are taking place on the same day, which is particularly symbolic given this year’s theme: Stand Together. The significant milestone that we collectively mark is made especially poignant by the dwindling number of survivors of the Holocaust who are able to share their testimonies. By joining us here today, you are standing together with people still facing prejudice and hostility, and I thank you for your support.”
The regional commemoration was attended by many members of the local Jewish community and representatives from a range of faith communities, minority ethnic and other groups. Statements of Commitment were read by young people and prayers were read by Carl Nelkin and Rev David Kale. It also featured poetry readings by Michael Longley and Maureen Boyle, as well as a performance by Lagan College Choir.
The event also saw the official premiere of a powerful new film produced by The Executive Office in conjunction with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, showing Tomi Reichental, fellow Holocaust survivor Susan Pollack MBE, and Safet Vukalić BEM – a survivor of the genocide in Bosnia – share their personal experiences with young people from schools and colleges across Northern Ireland.
In her closing reflection, the Lord Lieutenant for the County Borough of Belfast, Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle CBE said: “The horror that is Holocaust is as sadly relevant today as ever was. People only die when we forget them. So our remembrance needs to be active, vocal and determined. National Holocaust Memorial Day allows for precisely this.”