Saturday, June 5, 2010
In an address to The Next Generation Board, Chicago, Leo Melamed spoke about the significance of the Museum’s genocide prevention work and the continued need to combat genocide and hate today.
Leo Melamed was just seven years old when he and his parents fled Poland in 1939, outwitting the Gestapo and the KGB and embarking on what would become a two-year journey involving three continents, seven languages, and the Trans-Siberian railroad. In 1941, Leo and his parents at last found safety in the United States.
Today, Mr. Melamed is an international authority on futures markets and serves as Chairman Emeritus of the CME Group and CEO of Melamed & Associates. As the former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he was instrumental in transforming the Exchange into what is now one of the most highly valued financial marketplaces in the world.
Mr. Melamed served on the Museum’s governing board from 1991 to 2005 and formally proposed the establishment of the Committee on Conscience which would, he envisioned, enable the Museum to “act as a moral weight whenever and wherever it witnessed the potential for genocide.” After unanimous approval in 1995, the Committee was established and has since led the Museum’s efforts to prevent and halt genocide and related crimes against humanity in the world today.
The Next Generation Board, Chicago seeks to engage and inspire the next generation of the Chicago metropolitan area through philanthropic activities and educational programming. In memory of those who were killed and in honor of the survivors of the Holocaust, the Board is dedicated to confronting today’s moral challenges and to shaping tomorrow’s leaders.
The following is a true story. It happened in Poland just outside of Wilno directly after World War II. One day, the great Jewish poet Avrom Sutzkover, himself a Holocaust survivor from the Wilno Ghetto, was walking along a desolate and war-torn path. Suddenly, he saw in the distance a young boy, perhaps 13 or 14, hurrying towards him. The incident was recorded by the poet in the following words:
A scorched Star of David on his forehead
Hair of tangled thorns
His eyes---ice in spring
With yellow ribs beneath torn rags
Strides a boy, assisted by a twisted staff,
Hurrying along Konigsberger Way.
Large willows double in the water
Cornflowers beckon through the stalks
But the boy, leaning on his stick, hurries forward
The foliage was not for him...
Except, from time to time
He tosses his head behind him
Like a bird searching---how far is yet the storm...
He imagines still---he's being chased.
---“Tell me child, what is your hurry?
Awaits for you a home, a father-mother?”
He freezes for a moment
As if the world endured a sudden eclipse:
---“I have no one,” he responds.
“They say in Wilno there's a school for children.
I'm headed there.
Is it far from here?”
We place ourselves together on a hill
And I show him where to go.
He lifts all the world in his sack
And hurries off through sticks and stones.
I shout to him from a distance:
---“Young man! Young man!
And you, yourself---
From where are you? From where?”
Like glowing embers,
His wrinkles unexpectedly illuminate,
A smile forms in the corner of his lips,
His eyes begin to shine---bluish gold,
And from his voice a boldness suddenly emerges:
---“From where am I you ask? From where?
Sir, I am from steel.”
I have a special affinity to that boy. I was seven years old when the war broke out. We lived in Bialystok, Poland’s second largest city where sixty percent of the residents were Jews. You have all heard of Bialystok. Some famous people were born there including Icchok Shamir, the former Prime Minister of Israel. It is also the place from where Jewish bakers invented what is today known as the bialy.
Our life was normal. That is, until September 1, 1939, just as I was about to enter first grade. Then the world turned upside down and would never be the same. Captured by the Nazis, our fate was to be the same as that of six million Jews---of which one and a half million were children like me---trapped in the ruthless grip of the German Wehrmacht.
But I was one of the fortunate. Because of my parent’s brilliance, foresight, and courage, coupled with good luck, they plucked us out of the fire, literally in the middle of one night. Thus, began a dash for freedom, across borders---on foot, by truck, by train and by junk boat---as my parents outwitted the Gestapo and the KGB day after day, week after week. An escape that had the benefit of one of the world’s most Righteous human beings, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Counsel General in Lithuania who issued 3000 life-saving visas to Japan. An odyssey that took two years, across Lithuania, the Soviet Union and all of Siberia, across the Sea of Japan to the city of Kobe. Then in a stroke of amazing good fortune we were permitted passage to the United States just a few months ahead of Pearl Harbor.
Yes, I have a personal affinity for that boy of steel. For whatever act of fate, like him I too became a survivor, but with a huge difference---unlike him I do not have the numbers on my arm. The rest of my family was not that lucky.
Bialystok had one additional distinction: its Great Synagogue with its Byzantine gold dome that was famous throughout Europe. On July 3, 1941, the Nazis rounded up about 800 Jews from the surrounding neighborhood, including both my grandmothers and my father’s sister, herded them into the synagogue at gun point, locked all the doors and windows---saturated the outside walls with gasoline---and torched it. It was a preview of nightmarish coming attractions. As everyone knows, the remaining Jewish citizens of Bialystok, along with 90% of the Jews of Poland and two thirds of the Jews of Europe were murdered in the gas chambers.
Fate does not explain its rationale. Fate had chosen to save me from the Holocaust and bring me to this exalted land of liberty. To grow up as an American and live in freedom. To participate in its opportunity and reach the level of my own capabilities.
Oh, and to do one more thing: To tell you about the Boy of Steel. Because his story is the story of the Jewish people—it is why we still exist—and it is a message that must be understood, embraced and repeated.
For he is the symbol of our existence.
For his survival personifies the survival of the Jewish nation.
For his memory embodies the memory of the six million who perished.
For his courage represents the courage of all survivors and all the Ghetto fighters.
For his spirit is the foundation for United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Within its walls, at the epicenter of its structure, sits the Museum’s Committee on Conscience. It is the world’s early warning system—a canary in the mine-shaft—to sound the alarm, marshaling mankind’s collective conscience, whenever or wherever the seeds of genocide are detected. As they were in Darfur, as they were in Kosovo, as they were in Rwanda. For when it comes to racial hatred, bigotry, or ethnic annihilation, no other voice on this planet, has the moral weight of the Holocaust Museum.
The Committee on Conscience was the first in June of 2004 to declare a Genocide Emergency in Sudan. Among its actions, it was the first in the U.S. to create an exhibit using the exterior walls of the Museum to depict the faces of genocide in Darfur; its website continuously points the finger with oral and visual content wherever genocide raises is detected; it provides a constant flow of information and resources to teachers, students and activists; it is a major source of assistance to the US government in its efforts to prevent genocide; it introduces and teaches Museum visitors of the horror of genocide, and to the events in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sudan. Thirty million Museum visitors have been witness to these exhibits, and millions more have visited its website.
And tonight we are privileged to have among our guests, Claire Mukundente, a Rwandan survivor, whose story is similar to mine and whose mission is no different than mine: To tell her story of survival in order to carry forward the purpose of the Committee on Conscience. At the age of sixteen, Claire, literally carrying her six year old sister Clementine—walked across Rwanda to Burundi, through the Congo, to Tanzania, to Malawi and to eventual passage to the American shores. A few years ago, Claire’s little sister Clementine graduated New Trier High School---from where my grandson, Aaron Melamed Dubnow graduated---and went on to Princeton.
The Boy of Steel, his words and meaning, have particular relevance in today’s moment of international turmoil. For it is during times of economic and political stress, change, and uncertainty that bigotry and hatred become emboldened and raise their ugly head. In the 1880s Jews caused the assassination of Tsar Alexander II; in the early 1900s Judeophobia in Russia and the Ukraine was acerbated by the liberal Manifesto of Tsar Nicholas II; in the 1930s, the Jews were proclaimed by the Nazis as the cause of all evil; during 9-11, the Jews caused the attack on the twin towers; today we hear the President of Iran tell the members of the United Nations—to overwhelming applause—that it was Jews that caused the current financial crisis. Check the Internet and you will see and hear countless echoes of similar vile hatred directed at Jews. Those sentiments today, represent a clear and present danger. It is precisely at moments such as these, that our united commitment becomes critical.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a unique fortress against the enemies of humanity and tolerance. Its Committee on Conscience embodies our sacred promise of Never Again. Join us in preserving the memory and message of The Boy of Steel.