Gariwo: the gardens of the Righteous

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The search for new righteous continues

Victoria Bagdassarian

We are hereby publishing the speech of Victoria Bagdassarian, Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia, at the conference "From the Memory of Shoah to the Righteous of the Present-Day" held at the Chamber of Deputies on the 26th of January 2017.

Dear friends, it is a great privilege to be here on the eve of the commemorations of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and to underline the significance of Righteous among the Nations.

At the outset, I would like to thank Vice President Marina Sereni for her hospitality as well as the organizers of the event, Honourable Milena Santerini and Gariwo, represented by Gabriele Nissim. I would also like to greet the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Mrs. Noemi Di Segni and all the other speakers.

Today we are here to remember but at the same time we are here to pass on this memory. Neither of this is an easy task. We, therefore, rely on those persons of goodwill who have made their choices "despite everything", those Righteous, who in the course of history, in the face of genocide and mass killings, have defended human dignity and saved lives at the risk of their own.

Since 1962, when the Commission for honouring the Righteous Among the Nations was established in Israel, there have been more than 26,000 people, recognized as Righteous Among the Nations and honoured by Yad Vashem, the National Institution for the memory of Shoah.

And this means that there are more than 26,000 stories that we have to preserve and to tell. Like that of Giorgio Perlasca who by posing himself as a Spanish diplomat in Budapest saved thousands of Jewish Hungarians from the Nazi extermination. Or that of Gino Bartali, a renowned cyclist, who with his bicycle was smuggling false documents to help the Jews to obtain a new identity. There are many other stories that we can find in Jerusalem where, among the trees of the Mount of Remembrance and the Memorial Wall, one can see the names of those Armenians who saved Jews during the Holocaust, thus meriting the title of "Righteous Among the Nations".

In 2012, by establishing the European Day of Remembrance for the Righteous, the European Parliament took a solemn commitment each year on March 6 to commemorate those who with their individual responsibility opposed to the crimes against humanity and defied totalitarianism.

The draft law as proposed by Honourable Santerini, Fiano and others on the establishment of Remembrance Day of the Righteous of Humanity, is the continuation of the European commitment. It is not a plain administrative act but - as written by Gabriele Nissim in his wonderful article - rather a free choice. Each individual, by making one`s free choice, first and foremost opposes the collective barbarism.
It is for that very reason that we need guiding examples of Righteous in order to face the manifestationslike migration, terrorism, wars, extremism and nationalism. We need the Righteous to prevent the recurrence of crimes against humanity.

I believe, and for the Armenians it is without any doubt, that this is the purpose of all our efforts. It is also the case for President Di Segni and his Sunday RUN FOR MEM marathon through the places of memory, it is the case for Mrs. Santerini and her awareness raising legislative initiative, it is the case with the Gariwo`s Gabriele Nissim and Pietro Kuciukian who proved that not only trees grow in the gardens but also human conscience. Likewise, it is the case with Françoise Kankindi and her tireless ability of speaking about the tragic events in Rwanda.

Since its independence, Armenia spares no effortsin advancing genocide prevention policies and fighting crimes against humanity, promoting different preventing mechanisms, motions and organizes international forums.
It was the case when in 2013, during its first presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, among its priorities the fight against racism and xenophobia was high on the agenda. It was the Armenian initiative that, back in March 2015 in Geneva, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations adopted the Resolution on the Prevention of Genocide. It was thanks to the Armenian proposal that December 9, the Day of the adoption of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, by the approval General Assembly of United Nations,was established as the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. It is also being done on a daily basis in schools: as reported by UNESCO, Armenia is the only country in the region where school program includes Holocaust teaching.

It was also the case in 2015, during the commemorative events of the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide around the world, when the importance of gratitude, recognition of the profound moral value of those who have saved one, dozens, hundreds or thousands of lives was specifically underlined. The reason I want to reaffirm this strongly is that remembering good deeds is also an act of prevention.

Armenians are grateful to all those Kurds and Turks who stealthily saved their Armenian neighbors. We are grateful to Arabs and Jews who sheltered the survivors of the death marches enroute Mesopotamia, as well as to Russians, Americans and Europeans who welcomed and took care of Armenian orphans. We are grateful to the clergymen, missioners, diplomats, public figures and to those nations that took part in the humanitarian efforts. We are also grateful to scholars, researchers and all the intellectuals in general that were and are sparing no efforts to shed light on that crime committed already more than one hundred years ago.

And this collective sense of gratitude of all Armenians - at homeland and in diaspora – served as a basis for the establishment of Aurora Humanitarian Initiative - an initiative first incepted in 2015 and inspired by the story of Aurora Mardiganian, an Armenian Genocide survivor. The aim of the initiative is to discover and disseminate the stories of survivors and saviors and to celebrate the strength of the human spirit. Among their activities I would like to recall the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity – that through awarding pays tribute to those individuals whose activity have had an exceptional impact on preserving human life and on promoting humanitarian causes.

Each year, on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, from hundreds of applications submitted, will choose one. The Aurora Prize Laureate will be honored with a US $100,000 grant. In addition, that individual will have the unique opportunity to continue the cycle of giving by selecting an organization that inspired their work to receive a US $1,000,000 award.

In April 2016 in Yerevan the first real official ceremony of the Aurora Prize took place with the participation of George Clooney who toghether with Nobel Prize winners Oscar Arias, Shirin Ebadi and Leymah Gbowee, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, human rights activist Hina Jilani, former Foreign Minister of Australia and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group Gareth Evans, former President of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo, President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York Vartan Gregorian and the late Elie Wiesel constituted the selection committee. During the event the first Aurora Prize was granted to Marguerite Barankitse "for saving thousands of lives and for caring for orphans and refugees during the years of civil war in Burundi".

For 2017 there are 558 nominations submitted from 66 different countries.
The search for new saviors, new Righteous, who is to be honoured, is underway.
We need more «Fridtjof Nansens» and «Henry Morgenthaus» as during the Armenian Genocide. Likewise, we need more «Irena Sendlers» and «Raoul Wallenbergs» as during the Holocaust. Or new «Paul Rusesabaginas» as during the Rwandan genocide. Or new «Van Chhuons» as during the Cambodian Genocide.

And what about another Ambassador Barbarani – who is present today and whom I greet wholeheartedly - who did so much during the dictatorship in Chile.

I thank you and wish productive work.

Analysis by Victoria Bagdassarian, Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia

31 January 2017

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