Days of Remembrance, April 15 - April 22
Fred S. Zeidman, Chairman, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
April 19, 2007, The Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.
Every year we begin this ceremony with a tribute to the American soldiers who sixty-two years ago this spring liberated the concentration camps. They entered places like Dachau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen. Names once unknown and now infamous.
Those young soldiersand they were very younghad by then become hardened by battle, yet nothing prepared them for what they would witness when they entered these camps. War was one thing. Humans had engaged in war since the beginning of time. But genocide, this was new. A threshold had been crossed.
Those young soldiers knew it. And their leader, General Dwight Eisenhower, whose statue so appropriately stands in the back of this magnificent rotunda, most certainly knew it. Almost a month before the German surrender, he himself took time from the war effort to visit one of these camps to see if the reports he had read were accurate. When he entered Ohrdruf, he realized that those reports did not even begin to describe what some human beings had done to other human beingsall solely because of who they were.
Unprepared for this shocking encounter, Eisenhower immediately ordered other Allied soldiers to witness the camps. But he did much more. He was worried that people would not believeespecially decades hence. So he urged members of congress, the British parliament and journalists to visit these campsand to be witnesses. He hoped that an abundance of first-hand accounts of the atrocities would prevent anyone from ever disbelieving them or attributing it to propaganda. Sadly, on this he was wrong. Very wrong.
Today we witness that very charge of propaganda from those who would deny or minimize the Holocaust. Perhaps, thinking back on Eisenhower’s prophetic warning, we should not be so shocked. But we are. This is, after all, the 21st century. We expected much progress from humankind over the past six decades. But the reality is that even a watershed event like the Holocaust could not change human nature.
And that is why we have a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in our nation’s capital. An important institution that is rapidly becoming even more important. Those young liberating soldiers, the first eyewitnesses, are now dying every week. And, we are losing the survivors, who would not even be alive if not for those brave soldiers.
So, when they are gone, when we are gone, what will assure that the Holocaust will continue to be studied, taught, understood? Our Museum and its vast collections of original materialmillions of pages of archives, tens of thousands of photographs, thousands of artifacts. They range from Gestapo documents for rounding up Jews to a tiny teddy bear that a young Jewish girl clutched as she fled the Nazis.
How timely that the Museum opened the International Tracing Service Archives, the largest closed Holocaust archive in the world, just as Holocaust denial is on the rise. And how urgent. These documentsof deportations, concentration camps, slave labor were gathered in 1945 by Allied armies, including the soldiers we honor today. So we realize with immense gratitude that not only were they first to witness but they helped us preserve the documentation that will serve as the enduring witness.
For as President Bush said so eloquently yesterday when he visited the Museum and spoke about the genocide in Darfur, we must continue to study the Holocaust, because its lessons have yet to be learned. And, these lessons are sorely needed in this 21st century.