Days of Remembrance, April 27 - May 4
Joshua B. Bolten, Chief of Staff to the President
May 1, 2008, U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.
I am deeply honored to be at this podium today, to speak about anniversaries and the moral obligation of memory.
Many who have stood here before me have spoken from their own memory, telling their most personal of stories – the years of suffering, the loss of loved ones, survival and the anguish of haunting memories. I have no such stories to tell. My Jewish grandparents left Europe before the Holocaust, bestowing on my parents the gift of being born in this land of freedom.
But I do stand here as the proud son of a brave young American soldier, decorated for the valor that led to his capture by Nazi forces. Imprisoned in a German POW camp for two years, he refused to hide the dog tag that bore the letter H (for Hebrew). Thirty-five years later, working at the White House near the end of a distinguished career of national service, my father shepherded the work of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and helped bring to fruition the first of these National Days of Remembrance ceremonies, and ultimately the US Holocaust Memorial Museum itself.
We gather at this 29th Days of Remembrance ceremony in a year and season of grim anniversaries. It has been almost exactly 75 years since the Nazis organized a massive nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses that inflamed anti-Semitism throughout Germany. 70 years since Kristallnacht, the night of brutality that, as Fred Zeidman eloquently described, exposed to the world Nazi intentions toward the Jews. 65 years since the Warsaw uprising, as Joel Geiderman reminded us, the best known of many episodes of heroic resistance.
Passover, which ended just a few days ago, commemorates the liberation of Jews from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago. So 65, 70, even 75 years in our history is not so long a time. But it is almost a lifetime. Had Mordecai Anielewicz, the young commander of the Warsaw uprising, survived, he would be almost 90 today.
With the passage of time, the Rescuers, the Liberators, and the Survivors – like those whom we’re blessed to have with us today – are naturally dwindling in numbers. Earlier this year, we lost the beloved Congressman Tom Lantos (so well remembered just now by Ambassador Meridor), whose experiences as a Survivor gave extra gravity to his powerful calls to conscience.
We are transitioning from living memory to historical memory, and that places a great burden of responsibility on the rest of us. As the witnesses to the witnesses, we carry the moral obligation of memory.
And what is that obligation? Surely it is more than fixing blame – for just as the generation of Survivors, Rescuers and Liberators dwindles, so must the Perpetrators, Collaborators and Bystanders. But why must we remember in such painful detail?
In his introduction to the presidential commission report that my father helped shepherd, Elie Wiesel gave an eloquent answer: First, Wiesel wrote, “we cannot grant the killers a posthumous victory. Not only did they humiliate and assassinate their victims, they wanted also to destroy their memory. They killed them twice, reducing them to ashes and then denying their deed.”
A Nazi guard once told Simon Wiesenthal that, in time, no one would believe his account of what he saw. Many in this room have devoted a lifetime to proving that prediction wrong. Yet there are still those who challenge the facts surrounding the Holocaust, or even brazenly deny its reality. Whatever form it takes – from cartoons in a newspaper owned by the Syrian government, to statements by leaders of Hamas, to an international conference hosted by the President of Iran – we must stand against every attempt at denial. We have an obligation to condemn these lies for what they are – and remind people of the truth.
Wiesel’s second explanation for the moral obligation of memory is that “we cannot deny the victims the fulfillment of their last wish . . . to bear witness.” This wish is captured in Emanuel Ringelblum’s “Oneg Shabbat” project, which Sara Bloomfield just described. When we read the victims’ stories in those long-buried milk cans, we relive their suffering. We honor their defiance. And we fulfill their request never to be forgotten.
Third, and most important, Wiesel wrote, “we must remember . . . for the sake of our own humanity,” because “indifference to the victims would result, inevitably, in indifference to ourselves.”
We saw this indifference on shameful display at the Evian Conference, which also marks its 70th anniversary this year. At that conference, powerful nations gathered in the heart of Europe to consider the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Yet they mustered only excuses for inaction, refusing to make the changes in refugee laws that could have rescued millions of Jews with a simple stamp on a paper. Five years later, with the full horror of the Holocaust primed to unfold, nations again gathered in Bermuda. This time, they produced a mere joint statement – along with a bureaucratic report that arrived long after the killing machines of Auschwitz and Treblinka were operating at full force.
Tragically, the international community has repeated this indifference in the decades since the Holocaust. In Rwanda and elsewhere, the innocent have paid the price.
Our generation has an opportunity – and a moral obligation – to be different. When we say, “Never again,” we must mean it. Not in our moment of history and responsibility. We must call evil by its name, and confront it with purpose and courage. We in government service especially must challenge those who have become enamored with process that substitutes for action and who shrink from the hard choices.
This commitment is being tested in Darfur. President Bush is the only world leader to call the killing there “genocide.” He has ordered sanctions on those responsible for violence. And he has pledged to provide training and equipment to help African troops deploy to Darfur. Yet America remains too lonely in this effort. In the past three years, the United Nations Human Rights Council has passed more than six times as many resolutions against Israel as it has against Sudan. And despite repeated urging, the UN peacekeeping force has yet to deploy. It is not too late to set this right.
In answering Wiesel’s three calls – to deny the killers a posthumous victory … to fulfill the last wishes of the victims … and to affirm our own humanity – we uphold the moral obligation of memory. And in our responsibility as witnesses to the witnesses, we are blessed to have remarkable assets.
First, of course, are the Survivors themselves, who comprehend evil with a clarity that comes only from direct experience. As they share their stories, they do more than deepen our knowledge of history – they advance the cause of justice.
We are also blessed with the efforts of individuals like Father Patrick Debois. Going door to door, Father Debois has collected the testimony of more than 700 witnesses and bystanders to the Nazi terror in Ukraine. He has identified the burial sites of countless victims shot execution-style in what has been called the “holocaust of bullets.” Thanks to this good priest’s work, names and stories are replacing the cold anonymity of mass graves. And witnesses who have held these memories in their hearts for 60 years are finding healing. Father Debois, we are honored by your presence today.
For generations to come, a lasting source of learning and memory will be the museums. In the past year, I have had the privilege to visit three with the President – Yad Vashem in Israel, the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center in Rwanda, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington. These museums commemorate loss in distinct ways. Yet they all recognize that genocide is possible only by the denial of individuality. And they recognize that the best way to restore humanity is to retell the victims’ stories, one by one.
At Yad Vashem, exhibits commemorate not only the victims lost – but also the lives lived. They show loving homes and cherished possessions – reminders of the richness of humanity stolen away.
At the Kigali Center, a communal grave holds nearly a quarter million victims, and that number continues to grow as Rwandan authorities gather remains from the 1994 genocide. God only knows – literally, only God knows – the identities of those who rest on the site. Yet inside the museum, exhibits display vivid Polaroid photographs of individual victims, most of them children. Beneath the photos are descriptions of simple things like a favorite sport or food – personal details that capture the uniqueness of each unfinished life.
At the U.S. Holocaust Museum, each visitor receives the identity card of a victim – the tragedy of the Holocaust on a personal scale. Already, 27 million visitors there have pursued their obligation of memory. Now and always, the witnesses will far outnumber the victims.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Holocaust Museum. Later this month, I will travel with President Bush to commemorate another proud anniversary – the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel. The birth of Israel just three years after the Holocaust reminds us that the last word need not be death and destruction. When Air Force One touches down at Ben-Gurion airport, we will see the American and Israeli flags waving side-by-side. And we will hear two national anthems: the Star Spangled Banner, and “Hatikvah” … “The Hope.”
Hope is at the center of Israel’s existence. It is at the center of the Jewish faith. And it is at the center of our task during these Days of Remembrance. The Holocaust shows that evil is real – but hope, goodness, and courage are eternal. When we carry this truth in our hearts, we uphold the moral obligation of memory. And we summon the strength to meet our solemn pledge: Never again. Not in our moment of history and responsibility.