International Holocaust Remembrance Day Event
Acting Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism
Thank you for joining us this afternoon in the Dean Acheson auditorium to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On behalf of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, welcome to today’s commemoration. Today we honor the millions of victims of the Holocaust and learn more about the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ that took place in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union during World War II.
When many of us reflect on the Holocaust, the horrific gas chambers and ovens of the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka immediately come to mind. Yet in parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, there was a less known part of the terrible genocide perpetrated against Jews, Roma, and other victims of the Nazis and their allies between 1941 and 1945. To the East of the line drawn by Hitler and Stalin in 1939 dividing Europe and starting WWII, the Nazis committed a low tech but equally murderous genocide. During this period, death squads of German soldiers or local collaborators dug pits, marched their victims to them, and machine gunned the men, women and children whose only crime was being born Jewish or otherwise considered “inferior” by the murderous Nazi regime. Millions of men, women and children died this way, their remains covered over in unmarked mass graves. Virtually no one escaped. In the death camps in the West, some victims were kept alive temporarily to serve as slave labor or to help “administer” the death camps until their turn came. In the East, you were picked up and killed within hours.
During my time as the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, I saw just how the legacy of this abomination still affects the entire population. It is part of the everyday experience of people living there. You do not need to go to a death camp to be confronted with the evidence of mass murder. You drive or walk past a depression in the earth and someone will say, “Oh, that is where they killed my grandparents.” I drove past a mass grave on my way to work each morning (albeit one containing victims of the NKVD). My wife taught aerobics in a gymnasium, the courtyard of which was a mass grave containing thousands. My USAID coordinator found where her grandparents were presumably killed; the depression in the earth made a convenient place for a garbage dump. Minsk and other cities in Belarus before the war had large Jewish populations, in some cases Jews comprised the majority. Street signs were in Yiddish as well as Russian. After the war all but a handful of the Belarusian Jews were dead. The story was similar in the Baltics and Ukraine and in parts of the Russian Federation.
This ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ was the subject of a documentary produced by Yahad-In Unum, an organization whose goal is to systematically identify and document every mass execution site during the Second World War.
We are honored to have with us today as a panelist Father Patrick Desbois, one of the founders and the current President of Yahad-In Unum. Yahad-In Unum means ‘unity’ in Hebrew and Latin, and the mission of Father Desbois and his colleagues is to truly bring unity out of the discord of the past carefully and deliberately created by the Nazi State. To quote Father Desbois, Yahad-In Unum’s “objectives are to substantiate this ‘Holocaust by Bullets’, to irrevocably refute the Holocaust deniers of today and tomorrow, to serve as a permanent warning to humanity of the dangers of genocide and to allow for the respectful remembrance of the fallen.”
In this spirit of remembrance of the past and action in the future, I am very pleased that Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Director of Visiting Scholar Programs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, is among today’s panelists. One of the great tragedies of the Holocaust is that the message ‘Never Again!’ was unfortunately not heeded in many parts of the world in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of this century. Through the work of Dr. Brown-Fleming and her colleagues at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, the Museum is marking its 20th anniversary this year with the theme of ‘Never Again – What You Do Matters’. This anniversary theme, “asks America to renew its pledge to honor Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans and challenges today’s generations to act on the lessons of the Holocaust and fulfill the promise of “Never Again.” ”
President Obama has taken up that challenge. Soon after entering office, he signed Presidential Study Directive 10 making the prevention of atrocities a key focus of this Administration’s foreign policy, both a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States. Our other panelist, my friend Victoria Holt, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, is especially qualified to address current efforts to ensure that mass murder such as occurred during the Holocaust is never repeated. Tori was an expert leader for the Genocide Prevention Task Force -- led by former Secretaries Albright and Cohen -- that recommended the creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board, which the President created in 2011. Unfortunately, one of our scheduled panelists, Julia Fromholz, Special Assistant to Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero, is unwell and unable to be with us this afternoon. Julia in her life in the NGO world developed the key training module we and other agencies use in this field, and now serves as the coordinator within the State Department of our efforts to use the Atrocity Prevention Board to make a difference.
Our moderator today will be my esteemed colleague, U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Douglas Davidson. The Department of State office that he leads seeks to bring a measure of justice and assistance to Holocaust victims and their families and to create an infrastructure to assure that the Holocaust is remembered properly and accurately. This is an important issue in our bilateral relations with European countries and with the State of Israel. Much of the office's work relates to bringing closure to issues left outstanding during the Cold War.
In a few moments, we will watch the brief documentary by Yahad-In Unum, called ‘Holocaust by Bullets’, which I mentioned previously. It will be followed by several taped testimonials from actual eye witnesses from the former Soviet Union. Afterwards, we will have an opportunity to hear from Father Desbois and the other panelists about their work and engage in an open discussion with members of the audience.
Remembering the Holocaust and pledging to prevent future genocide is not an issue unique to any one country or society. It is a matter of global importance. On January 14, the Greek government joined several European countries by creating a Special Envoy position for Holocaust Issues. Last Thursday, the Senate of Belgium ratified a resolution acknowledging the role of the Belgian government officials during the Holocaust. Many countries have difficulty coming to terms with their roles in history. Belgium’s lawmakers acted courageously in ratifying this resolution. The Belgian government, which currently chairs the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, has acted with leadership and commitment in confronting its past. If a country cannot bring itself to recognize where it fell short in combating or actively collaborated with the Nazi genocide over a half century ago, how can we expect them to deal honestly with contemporary atrocities in the making? The object here is not to condemn our ancestors who fell short or fell guilty about them, but to ensure that we recognize what they did and perhaps how they were brought to do it so that we can try to inoculate ourselves and others from falling victim to the same demons. I am pleased that present today are diplomats from the embassies of Austria, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom, including Ambassador Marina Kaljurand from the Estonian Embassy, Ambassador Andris Razans from the Latvian Embassy, and Ambassador Zygimantas Pavilionis from the Lithuanian Embassy.
They are joined by representatives from non-governmental organizations, academia, think tanks, and the media, among others. Together, we are all witnesses to the past. And together, we are all future activists.
Please join me in welcoming all of our distinguished guests, panelists and moderator. Thank you.