The Speech of the President of the Czech Republic at the Terezín Commemoration Ceremony
Dear survivors and contemporary witnesses, distinguished constitutional officials, Your Excellencies, distinguished representatives of the Jewish community, ladies and gentlemen,
Traditionally, we dedicate the third Sunday in May to honouring the victims of Nazi genocide. For 76 years, we have been commemorating more than 155,000 people who passed through the Terezín ghetto at the Terezín National Cemetery. According to the promoters of the monstrous Nazi ideology based on the idea of their own superiority, these people were guilty of wrong ethnic origin. As Jews, they were deprived of fundamental human rights. They faced appalling living conditions, humiliation and permanent fear of being deported to a place of no return.
We must not forget the victims of our historical mistakes. We must forget neither the families nor the individuals who walked on foot with heavy luggage in their hands from the station in Bohušovice to Terezín, thinking that they were going to work there and that they would return home for the weekend. Unfortunately, they never saw home again. According to historians, one in four prisoners passed away in Terezín. Nearly 90,000 people were transported to extermination camps.
The Nuremberg Race Laws are a tragic memento of the evil that man can commit against man. They have shown us how vulnerable human society is under the pressure of propaganda and fake news. It is a sad truth that the Nazi regime got away with its crimes because mainstream society remained silent about them for so long. Perhaps it did not have the strength to resist. Perhaps it was out of indolence. The Nazis’ efforts to hide the truth and the art of manipulating the public mind facilitated it too. An example of the success of propaganda is a legend that “the Führer gives a city to the Jews”. This was also the title of a propaganda film shot in Terezín.
This unique fortress, known throughout Europe as one of the pinnacles of military engineering, eventually became a symbol of the worst of what man is capable of. We must assume responsibility for the crimes committed by our ancestors and learn a lesson from them. I was sorry to learn that some of the buildings in this city are in a state of disrepair and that parts of them have even collapsed. It is imperative that the government look hard for ways to prevent the gradual destruction of this place because it is a source of our historical memory. It allows testimony to be passed on to future generations. This is important because of contemporary threats such as various forms of extremism, phobias or extreme nationalism.
Just like Nazi propaganda, Putin’s Russia is now describing the war in Ukraine as something necessary and just. Paradoxically, as an attempt at “denazification”. We must firmly reject the Russian lies that a state with a democratically elected president of Jewish origin whose family survived the Holocaust needs to be freed from Nazism. It is merely an attempt to divert attention from the weakness of Putin’s own regime and to unite the Russian domestic audience against a supposed demonic external enemy.
I wish that history would never again teach our children and grandchildren the same lesson in the future that World War II did. Times are not and will not be easy. Citizens in the Czech Republic and in the whole of Europe are suffering from the hardships of everyday life caused by economic and social impacts of the war. War fatigue is putting politicians under pressure and is hampering efforts to manage state budgets in a responsible manner. Maintaining unity in supporting Ukraine will thus become increasingly challenging. At this point, I would therefore like to make an appeal to us not to give up on our efforts to defeat Russia in Ukraine and hence to reject the disregard of rules of international order that we are witnessing. We should be motivated by the very historical experience that we are talking about today. It is right that we remember it and relate it to contemporary situation. Only in this way can we avoid repeating mistakes of the past.
Petr Pavel, the President of the Czech Republic, Terezín Memorial, 21st of May 2023