At the November 1, 2003, Tribute Dinner, Stuart Eizenstat describes the founding of the Museum and the power of its message:
“...it is clear the world still has not absorbed the lessons of the Holocaust.”
—Stuart Eizenstat, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, author of Imperfect Justice, and Member, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
November 1, 2003
It is a privilege to speak tonight on the 10th Anniversary of the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and especially to the Holocaust survivors and your families and the families of those who perished. This is your Museum, your history, and your story.
For me this is closing a circle of time. You have lived through Hell on Earth. But for me, like so many Americans of my generation, the Holocaust was a faint, distant memory. Despite growing up in a household suffused with Judaism, with a father and both sets of uncles who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the War, and with both sets of grandparents from Eastern Europe, the Holocaust was never discussed, I never met a survivor, and took no courses on the Holocaust in college. Nor could I since none were offered anywhere in the United States in the 1960s. Only gradually did the Holocaust assert itself on my consciousness and on the conscience of the world.
My coming to terms with the Holocaust was due to a chance encounter in the 1968 Hubert Humphrey presidential campaign, with a fellow campaign worker, Arthur Morse. He had just published a path-breaking book, While Six Million Died, which for the first time described the inaction of President Roosevelt and other American leaders in the certain knowledge of the mass slaughter of Jews and other innocent civilians at Hitler’s hands. This was a profound shock for me. FDR was an icon in our home. I remembered the old saying that Jews believed in three things: Die Velt, Yenne Velt, and Roosevelt! Years later my shock was reinforced when I met Jan Karski, who told me the chilling story of how he twice went into the Warsaw Ghetto to bear witness to western leaders, only to be rebuffed in meetings with President Roosevelt and with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. The great jurist told Karski: “Sir, I am not saying you are lying, I simply cannot believe what you are saying, the horrors you are describing.” Your fate was never an Allied priority during the War, not after it either. The Cold War pushed you off the pages of history.
On April 25, 1978, as his chief domestic policy adviser, I sent a memorandum to President Jimmy Carter recommending a presidential commission to propose a permanent memorial in our nation’s capital to the victims of the Holocaust. President Carter announced the Commission on May 1 at the White House, during a visit of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. A little more than a year later on September 27, 1979, the President’s Commission, headed by Elie Wiesel, recommended a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. And so was born the idea of this remarkable American museum.
It took another 14 years of effort before the Museum was dedicated on April 22, 1993. The long journey from start to finish was not uncontroversial. The Holocaust is such a catastrophic, unparalleled event that it evokes strong emotions, and certainly the Museum has had more than its share of controversies and challenges.
Yet these are insignificant compared to the power of the Museum’s message for our generation and all the rest to come. The inspiration of Elie Wiesel; the brilliant concept developed by Founding Museum Director Shaike Weinberg; the remarkable architectural rendering by James Ingo Freed; the depth of the moving, historical content developed by Michael Berenbaum; the Museum’s distinguished chairs, Harvey “Bud” Meyerhoff, Miles Lerman, Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, and Fred Zeidman, all combined to assure that the Museum never lost sight of its great historical mission: to tell your story powerfully and accurately. The Museum has been a success beyond our most fervent hopes in 1978, touching the hearts and minds of tens of millions of Americans and people around the globe, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Nothing can restore what has been lost in the Holocaust: Rabbis no longer teaching the next generation a tractate of Talmud; Cantors no longer chanting haunting melodies in synagogues great and small; musicians and writers, poets and actors, business entrepreneurs and scientists whose creative genius was extinguished; mothers never creating the warm candle-lit glow of a Shabbat evening; farmers and shopkeepers no longer eking out a meager but proud living; one and a half million children never able to create their own Jewish sparks in the world; the Yiddish language, the transmission belt of European Jewish culture, barely a whisper; the heart of Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe torn asunder. We remain today the only religious group in the world whose number is smaller than in 1939.
ZACHOR -- REMEMBER. We tell the world, and ourselves “Remember”. But how do we Remember? Let me suggest five ways, each catalyzed by the Museum, by you and your fellow survivors, and by the memory of the Six Million.
First and foremost is to perpetuate the memory of the Six Million by telling the brutal truth about the Holocaust: the truth about the evil designs of the Nazi perpetrators and their collaborators; the truth about those who allowed their neighbors to be taken to their deaths without protest; the truth about the role of neutral countries who provided the financial and material support to help sustain the German killing machine; the truth about how the allied leaders of the great western democracies refused to ease their restrictive emigration quotas at the 1938 Evian Conference, signaling unmistakably to Hitler their blind eyes for the fate of Jews, that lasted throughout the War (soon after Evian darkness began with Kristallnacht). And, yes, the truth about the heroic non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews, and the many brave Jewish partisans and fighters in the ghettos and forests of Europe.
Each day this Museum opens its doors it reminds the world of these long-suppressed truths. During the Clinton Administration, we tried to undergird the Museum’s mission. We developed two U.S. government reports detailing for the first time the role neutral nations played in supporting the Third Reich. We obtained public apologies from the presidents of Germany and Austria for their private companies’ brutal employment of slave laborers. We encouraged countries to face their past honestly, by holding four international conferences each with over 40 countries, and helping 21 countries, including the U.S., create official historical commissions to study their roles during the War. We developed a 16 nation Holocaust Education Task Force to promote Holocaust education in school systems around the world.
But we only supplemented what the Museum has been doing so successfully. Each year, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reaches some 150,000 teachers around the country to help them teach youngsters about the Holocaust in terms they will understand. More than 2800 teachers come to the Museum for Belfer National Conferences, and more than 179 Mandel Fellows in 46 states design original Holocaust education projects for their schools and communities.
A second way to Remember is to insist that the lessons of the Holocaust be applied to contemporary problems, to make the protection of human rights a key part of our personal, community, national and international agendas. It was my own confrontation with the Holocaust that led me to persuade President Carter to create a special visa status to allow over 50,000 Iranian Jews, Christians, and Bahá'ís fleeing the Islamic revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini into the United States. But when we consider the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, it is clear the world still has not absorbed the lessons of the Holocaust.
Here again the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has played a special role, because of its unique call on the moral conscience of the world. Elie Wiesel and the President’s Commission on the Holocaust recommended a “living memorial” with Holocaust remembrance contributing to the prevention of future horrors. As they put it, “a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.” The Museum has fulfilled that vision. Shortly after it opened, the Museum created the Committee on Conscience, which has helped stir the conscience of the world to genocides and threats of genocides, from Bosnia and Rwanda to Chechnya and Sudan.
A third path to ZACHOR, Remembrance, is to honor the survivors of the Holocaust, by helping the living and their families. The Holocaust was not only history’s gravest, most systematic genocide, it was history’s greatest theft—the confiscation of bank accounts, art, property, personal effects, insurance policies, along with brutal, uncompensated slave labor. With the initiative of leaders like Edgar Bronfman, Israel Singer, and Senator Alphonse D’Amato, the lawsuits filed by class action lawyers, and with the strong support of President Bill Clinton, and his dedicated team, the issue of justice for long-forgotten Holocaust survivors was forced back onto the world’s agenda. Yet the heart and soul of the efforts I helped lead for Holocaust restitution, were inspired by Holocaust survivors like Roman Kent and Benjamin Meed.
Thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish communal properties---churches, synagogues, schools, community centers, even cemeteries—are being returned to help the re-emerging religious groups after the Cold War rebuild their shattered communities. Tens of thousands of Swiss bank accounts have been discovered. Some $8 billion in class action settlements were obtained from private Swiss, German, Austrian and French companies, and their governments, and for the first time private enterprises were held accountable for aiding and abetting wartime activity. Art and property are being returned and insurance policies are being paid.
But there is much more to be done here. Insurance policies have been paid at a painfully slow rate. Additional slave labor payments are long overdue, while thousands of survivors are passing away before our very eyes. Looted art remains hanging in public museums. Property payments in Austria remain hung-up over legal disputes. Regaining personal property, or even a small percentage of its value, remains almost impossible in many Eastern European countries, some now part of NATO and soon the European Union, which should be held to western norms.
The bottom line is that far too many elderly survivors, from South Florida to Eastern Europe remain destitute, without access to life-sustaining medical and pharmaceutical aid. We must use the 10th Anniversary of this great Museum as an inspiration to put aside our differences, and work together to use the unclaimed funds we have collected to assure that survivors are not neglected in their declining years. You have suffered so grievously when you were young. You must not do so again. We must dedicate ourselves to make elderly survivors our top priority, above all else.
There are some critics who questioned the whole effort at Holocaust restitution. But I found that for survivors it was not the amount they recovered, but the fact that someone was held accountable during their lifetimes for the wrongs committed against them. By what standard of justice should those who profited by theft get to keep their ill-gotten property and profits, while those from whom it was taken are criticized for wanting it back? In our Bible, after King Ahav’s wife Jezebel has Naboch killed for failing to give the King his vineyard, the prophet Elijah reprimands Ahav: “Will you murder and also inherit his possessions”? (Kings I, Chap. 21, v.19)
Another way to Remember is for us to protect Jews wherever they are threatened, and to help defend the Jewish homeland in Israel. Yom Ha’Atzmout, Israel Independence Day, comes soon after Yom Ha Shoah, just as Israel was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust. To neglect one is to forget the memory of the other.
The American Jewish community, awakened late to the dimensions of your suffering, has absorbed the lessons embodied in the phrase “never again”. We have joined with our Israeli brethren to help Jews gain their freedom in Arab countries, the former Soviet Union and in Ethiopia. We have extended assistance to Jews in need, from Argentina to the former Soviet Union. Our support—your support—of Israel security has been unstinting and magnificent.
It has become painfully evident that anti-Semitism did not end with the Holocaust, and that a new, virulent anti-Semitism has arisen, aimed at Israel and its supporters. It was visibly portrayed by the standing ovation Arab leaders recently gave at the 57 nation Organization of the Islamic Conference to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s crude canard that after “the Europeans killed 10 million Jews out of 12 million, . . . today the Jews rule the world by proxy,” and “get others to fight and die for them.” There has been an upsurge of anti-Semitic actions by Moslem youth in Europe against Jews and Jewish religious property; European professors threaten to boycott Israeli universities, and some European labor unions refuse to off-load Israeli products. And once again there is a deafening silence by many world leaders in the face of these outrages, a reminder that the work of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is not yet done. At the same time, we should take heart in some measure that, with U.S. leadership, the 54-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has now taken up the issue of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence for regular monitoring as a human rights issue.
There remains for us one last way to Remember. That is plainly and simply to assure our own continuity as Jews in America. The great openness and welcome acceptance of Jews in magnificent, modern day America, has caused too many of us to use our freedom to assimilate and abandon our religion and culture; to check our Judaism at the doors of the institutions that now accept us; to intermarry without conversion of the non-Jewish spouse; to abandon our millennia-old religious practices. We are a declining population in America and in the West.
The memory of the Six Million who died simply because they were born Jewish, a memory so brilliantly captured forever by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, must inspire us to redouble our dedication to Jewish identity, education, observance, and institutions, to Israel, and to Jews in need everywhere.
May the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, its leaders and staff, and may you, the Holocaust survivors and your families go from “strength to strength,” and continue to tell your story, L’Dor V’Dor, from generation to generation.