Guest blog by Steven Sedley, Holocaust Centre of New Zealand


The concept of ‘Human Rights’ didn’t exist for most of the history of mankind. It is a concept that evolved gradually during the Age of Enlightenment culminating in the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. However, that all should have the equal rights of citizens (including Jews, slaves, Romanis, colonised indigenous people, women and children) took many decades to take hold.

In most of Europe Jews didn’t have the rights of citizenship until near the end of the 19th century, and when they did get such rights they had a price to pay. They had to give up their language and learn to speak, and ultimately think, in the vernacular of their host country, be it French, German, or Hungarian. They had to give up their distinctive garb, they had to buy into a national consciousness, national celebrations, local patriotism, at the expense of their long standing Jewish traditions. Jews became French, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Italians, of Jewish persuasion, Jews by religion, but by identity the nationality of whatever country they lived in. It was not their rights as individual human beings, but their rights as citizens that mattered.

Sargeant in the Palace Guards, Hungarian by nationality and Jew by religion.

It was not until Nazi Germany deprived Jews (and others) not only of their rights as citizens, but also of their rights as human beings that the question of ‘Human Rights’ came to be considered by the community of nations. They were demonised, made invisible, their properties expropriated, exiled, identified by number not by name, and ultimately, they were murdered.

German sign
The sign (in German) reads, “Keine Gesundung der Voelker vor der Ausscheidung des Judentums!” [There will be no health for the people until the removal of the Jews.]  US Holocaust Museum
 In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that stated, among other provisions, that:

  • Everyone is entitled to all rights and freedom
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person
  • No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
  • All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law
  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile

Human Rights - HOLOCAUST

Perpetrators of ‘attacks directed against any civilian or an identifiable part of a civilian population’[1]  genocide and atrocities against people were brought to account for ‘Crimes Against Humanity’. The first prosecution for such crimes took place from 1945-46 at the Nuremberg trials. These considered the formal punishment of leading members of the Nazi regime for war crimes during World War II. Since then the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court were set up to deal with those responsible for mass murder in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and others.

Nuremberg Trial
Nuremberg trials – Defendants in the dock at the Nuremberg trials. The main target of the prosecution was Hermann Göring (at the left edge on the first row of benches), Wikipedia

New Zealand as a country and New Zealanders as individuals had only a limited knowledge of the atrocities that were committed in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. When faced with refugees seeking a haven, New Zealand shut its doors. Of the thousands who were fleeing for their lives, New Zealand admitted a mere 1100 approximately[2]. There were indeed individuals who spoke up on behalf of the refugees and many refugees encountered kindness on a personal level, but there was also a good deal of opposition to admitting people who were not British, and Jews in particularly. There was a deeply ingrained anti-Semitic prejudice under the surface.

The Nazis and their allies went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their crimes. People taken to extermination camps to be murdered were told that they were to be resettled. When extermination camps were abandoned they were not only destroyed, but the lands on which they were sited were grassed over to conceal all the evidence. The stories of mass murder were so horrendous and unbelievable that many put them down to propaganda.  It was a New Zealand diplomat, Paddy Costello, who was the first to report, through reliable diplomatic channels, the evidence of mass murder in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Maidanek.

New Zealand, like the rest of the world, failed to stand up for the victims, the persecuted. If there is anything to be learned from the Holocaust, it is that every individual must do their utmost to resist prejudice, fight injustice and to care for others.

The bottom line of the rights and obligations of every human being is summed up in the saying in the Talmud:

“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”  Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9; Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.

 1Crimes against humanity, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,
2Ann Beaglehole, 2007 (updated 2013), Government response to Jewish refugees,

Human Rights and Museums
from Nik Bullard, Social History Curator


Historically museums have tried to remain politically neutral. But to address the huge amount of human rights abuses and issues, historically and contemporarily, we need to bring these stories into our museum. To hear these stories, especially in people’s own words, is a valuable tool in creating an inclusive and participatory museum, one that isn’t afraid of telling difficult or hard stories.

I believe there is a social justice issue involved here – to tell the truth about what is happening on a local and global scale, thereby raising awareness and bringing about greater understanding, empathy and tolerance towards others. And just as importantly, to help prevent human rights abuses and atrocities of the past from ever happening again (eg, unbelievably fascism and slavery are on the rise!)

Holocaust Gallery Auckland
The Holocaust Gallery,  Auckland Museum

These museums and organisations address human rights:

  • The Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, Wellington
  • The Holocaust Gallery, Auckland Museum
  • Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg (established in 2008) – dedicated to the evolution, celebration and future of human rights
  • International Slavery Museum, Liverpool (opened in 2007) –hear the untold stories of enslaved people and learn about historical and contemporary slavery
  • The War and Women’s Human Rights Museum, Seoul, South Korea
  • War Remnants Museum (formerly Museum of American War Crimes), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • Osaka Human Rights Museum, Japan
  • EMSA Museum of Remembrance and for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • National Museum of Memory, Medellin, Colombia
  • FIHRM (Federation of International Human Rights Museums) – about sharing, working together, learning from each other, and encouraging each other; about being active – looking at the ways our museums can challenge contemporary racism, discrimination and other human rights abuses.

Museum campaign for human rights

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana)