Standing Up and Speaking Out

Today is the internationally recognized date for Holocaust Remembrance Day. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, when the Jewish resistance opposed Nazi Germany's last attempt to transport the remaining ghetto population to the Treblinka concentration camp. Across the United States, many events today will commemorate those brave individuals who resisted detention and slaughter.

I grew up in the shadow of World War II and the Holocaust, the child of parents who worked as international relief workers. My father oversaw reconstruction projects in Western Europe during the late 1940s. My mother worked primarily along the French/German border with war orphans and refugees.

For several years, my parents put their souls into rebuilding the lives of those who had survived the ravages of that war. Eventually they returned to the United States to raise a family, but their experiences were an integral part of my childhood. When my parents told stories of the devastation, hunger and grief they witnessed, I learned about oppression and suffering. But I also learned about the power of healing and rebuilding. Through the stories of men and women who resisted the hatred and persecution that ruled Europe during the war, I was introduced to the concept of human rights and human rights defenders.

Like those in my generation who were born following the Holocaust, I learned from the news about other gross human rights atrocities. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge and its social engineering policies led to the persecution and deaths of more than 1.7 million people in the late 1970s. In 100 days in 1994, up to 1 million men, women and children were slaughtered in Rwanda.

In the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnians were executed in the days after the Bosnian Serb Army overran the enclave. I was in Bosnia at the time, interviewing survivors from Srebrenica as they emerged from the forest where they had fled, seeking shelter at the Tuzla airbase or in nearby schools. I will never forget the horror on their faces or the stories we heard, almost too unimaginable to comprehend. But they turned out to be true.

During these times of persecution, discrimination and repression, there are always brave defenders, like the ones in the Warsaw ghetto, who dare to stand up, speak out and resist torture and other human rights violations. Their stories are not widely known, but it is important that we honor them.

Today let us recognize the courageous acts of the Jews in Warsaw who stood up to the Nazis. But let us also draw inspiration from those individuals who, even when faced with the threat of torture and violence, dared to speak out. Let us learn from and be emboldened by the brave men and women who honored all lives, in the hope that one day we may all live free of persecution and torture.

To commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day, join Juan Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and former Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, in an online discussion on the prohibition of genocide and torture.