Opening speech by Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Director General, Education, Culture and Heritage, Youth and Sport

Monday, 24 April,

The remains of Terezin

When I first discovered Terezin Virgil's phrase "Obscure they went thro' dreary shades", which I learned in my youth, immediately sprang to my mind in the strange atmosphere of this unchanging, motionless village, where today, just like yesterday, nothing reveals to visitors the lethal drama that was played out here over a period of more than three years.

When the members of the International Red Cross delegation visited this ghetto camp, resembling a Potemkin village imagined by the Nazis in their cynical cruelty, they saw nothing more than "this town the Führer gave the Jews". Here, unlike in the new capitals the geography of horror had given Europe - Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor, nothing is visible at first glance: no gas chamber, no gallows, no barbed wire, not even rudimentary barracks.

There is nothing to see. At most one has a feeling that something is missing or the sense of an invisible presence - the deportees on the verge of their disappearance, walking along obscure, invisible, reduced to the solitude of their approaching death. Those who come here - whether visitors or local people - are in turn transformed into transient beings, as if in the grips of the shame felt by those who have witnessed something unspeakable, the very sense of shame Primo Levi refers to throughout his work.

Terezin is above all a "place of exception", in that it is unique among all the camps and ghettos that were scattered across Europe. Unique because it did not show its true face as an antechamber of death, whereas the chambers of death (the other camps) revealed the naked truth of what they were. Today, it remains the showcase which fooled visitors at the time. As I already mentioned, nothing is visible, and even the history books tell a somewhat doctored version of the truth, leading us to believe that the inhabitants of this ghetto were sent to their death at Auschwitz, which is true. However, they overlook the fact that huge numbers of people died in Terezin itself, of malnutrition and of ill treatment, and that the site's four crematorium ovens functioned flat out. It is as if the show camp of yesterday continued to have the same deceptive effect today in a world where we are endlessly misled. What is missing here is the clear evidence of the systematic elimination of other human beings in a hierarchy of horror, which began with their humiliation and ended with their annihilation.

Why Terezin near Prague? It was in Prague that Hitler wanted to locate his "museum of a lost civilisation", a counterpart to the real museum he intended to build in Linz. It was in Terezin that the "Jewish cultural camp" was established. Like Hannah Arendt, one inevitably thinks of the first "Court Jew" to show monarchist aspirations regarding his own nation, a Jew from Prague who was a supplier to Maurice, the Elector of Saxony, in the 16th century. Prague is Kafka's city, and Terezin is indeed the melancholy village he portrays in "The Castle" and which Camus describes so well in an appendix to the "Myth of Sisyphus".

As Camus explains, the great hope of K., Kafka's protagonist, is that he will succeed in persuading those in the castle to accept him. Since he cannot achieve this alone, he strives to become a member of the local village community and to lose his outsider status, of which everyone constantly reminds him. What he wants is an occupation, a home, a normal, healthy life. He wants to fit in, to rid himself of the curse that makes him an outsider. Terezin does not bring an end to the outsider's isolation. It is no epilogue to the story. The wish to belong, and the difficulties of integrating, the desperate desire for recognition are moreover part of the daily lives of the ever-growing number of migrants who are to be found all over the world and who ultimately give it its cosmopolitan nature.

This is a brilliant metaphor for the condition of the Jews in the "Mitteleuropa" of the time - the unattainable desire for assimilation that makes those who have converted describe themselves as Christians of Jewish origin. In "The Hidden Tradition" Hannah Arendt cruelly tells the truth: Jews can escape their condition of pariahs only by becoming a "parvenu", and there are two ways of doing so - becoming a "Court Jew" whose wealth is the key to social acceptance or becoming a "cultured Jew" whose passionate devotion to European culture brings him recognition.

It has rightly been said that the Nazis' greatest enemy was the "assimilated Jew" in that the latter attempted to escape his identity, to abandon his Jewishness and, in doing so, corrupt the essence of Aryanism. The same corruption phobia was behind the efforts to eliminate the mentally ill and the deportation of homosexuals. Just as the Nazis exterminated the Jews of note who made up the Judenräte (the pathetic counterparts of the Court Jews) after they had finished using them, in order to demonstrate how futile were their hopes of being able to deal with the Nazi regime on equal terms, Terezin aimed to show that culture was a dead end for the Jews who hoped to survive. Terezin set out to show that a Jew was by essence destined to die.

This was how a theatre of cruelty and cynicism was built, where what took place on stage was a warped performance of illusion and pretence (Vorstellung und Vergegenwärtigung), transforming the victims into the actors of their own deceit and downfall, accomplices in degrading themselves because they had to survive at all costs. Imagine this village with the creative energy of a capital city: opera, theatre, the press, the graphic arts, chamber music, between 60 and 80 lectures every week, non-official, undercover teaching of all kinds of cultural subjects, dispensed by shadows of human beings destined to die.

The sham was total, but the culture developed and transmitted here was nonetheless genuine. In a silent confrontation of viewpoints, the Nazis sought to prove that death ruled supreme and culture was but the vain wing-beat of a panicked insect, whereas the authors, musicians and teachers believed that something would survive and, if they could no longer bear witness, culture would speak for them through a fabulous process of prosopopoeia. Our presence here today and our speeches serve merely to show that the latter were right and that we can make their silenced voices heard anew.

Terezin was the only specifically Jewish concentration camp, yet, more than the others, it conveys a message which is universal because it is rooted in culture: music, painting, and also writings in German, Czech, Yiddish and so on. It raises the question of a society of pariahs, of the hopes nurtured by its members. The Jews indeed experienced the ultimate tragedy, but their fate is a call for empathy with all those who live in an environment where individuality and difference are ill-accepted - the poor, exiles, refugees, those rejected by others for all kinds of reasons, all those who are stigmatised and who must be restored to their rightful place in society.

The concentration camps were the acme of a movement that emerged in 19th-century Europe with the objective of increasing the number of places of detention that constituted places of exception where everything became possible even the unthinkable, that is to say places where there was no prospect whatsoever of a fair hearing. If the genocidal tendency of the excesses that led to the death camps has nowadays disappeared, and I say this so as to avoid any possibility of confusion, we must nonetheless remain extremely vigilant to prevent any resurgence or spread of the concentration camp in the primary sense, that of a closed place of detention where people are concentrated in large numbers.

Whatever semantic form or ideological euphemism is adopted, the words conceal the same ghastly reality - depriving human beings of their rights and dignity. Ghettos, gulags, labour camps, re-education camps, detention centres, reception centres, "waiting areas" all these specific universes that have become so widespread that they are to be found virtually everywhere and which we wish to see eradicated.

As you know, the Council of Europe, which I represent here, attaches very special importance to promoting peace, dignity for all and democracy. The Organisation's Statute declares that the signatory states are "convinced that the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilisation" and reaffirms their "devotion to the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their peoples and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law, principles which form the basis of all genuine democracy."

The policy for fostering intercultural dialogue is a contemporary interpretation of this mission. What this means is adopting an approach open to all forms of diversity, provided they respect recognised universal values, regardless of religions, ethnic origins and beliefs. The message we have to convey is not merely that dominant population groups must show tolerance for minorities or those who are socio-economically disadvantaged, but is imbued with a heartfelt conviction that any form of recognition of another's diversity is an extremely enriching experience for both sides.

This objective is consistent with an essential aim of the intergovernmental organisation which the Council of Europe constitutes and which I represent here - that of reinforcing democracy at all levels of subsidiarity. The question is how can individuals be given a greater sense of citizenship and be made more willing to enter into a dialogue with others? A huge effort is needed, and the work is never ending since we are constantly faced with new generations who are unfamiliar with the past and because, in terms of democracy and citizenship, nothing is ever cut and dried. Youth and education are therefore our two watchwords, since Europe could not exist without being a breeding ground for exchanges and only exchanges of all kinds can reinforce its unity and consistency.

2008 is to be declared the "Year of intercultural dialogue". Our societies have become multicultural in nature, and we must accept this as a tremendous opportunity, bearing in mind the price humanity has paid for the sombre periods in its history when it overstepped the mark and slid into discrimination, exclusion and ultimately slaughter. Education and dissemination of minimum moral standards are the most heartfelt, most meaningful tribute we can pay the victims, because they give a sense to their suffering and assist us in our daily lives, both present and future.