Days of Remembrance, April 27 - May 4
Joel M. Geiderman, Vice Chairman, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
May 1, 2008, U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.
Remarks and Memorial Candle Lighting
Senators, Congressmen, Chief of Staff Bolten, members of the Diplomatic Corps, and fellow citizens. I stand before you this morning and humbly thank you on behalf of my family who perished in the Holocaust for attending this Days of Remembrance ceremony in our nation’s capitol. There are no words to express my gratitude to you for being here.
One theme of today’s ceremony is that of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. I applaud this because it belies the negative image I ashamedly believed as a youngster that Jews went to the slaughter like sheep because they were too afraid, timid, or weak to fight back. The truth is, faced with incremental decisions as to whether to fight back or be killed on the spot; and unaware of any precedent whereby people were exterminated solely on the basis of their religion or “race,”-- a situation that was only subsequently termed “genocide”—Jews often did not resist. Ultimately they were placed in ghettos, on transports, and in concentration camps, usually not understood ahead of time as death camps, and were destroyed. There should be not one ounce of shame associated with these actions. At every step, they did what they thought was best to save their families and themselves. Who among us would do differently?
The pathetic irony is that we have to spend our time defending the honor of the victims. During the run up to World War II, liberal democracies stood by as impotent, unwitting accomplices, unable to stand up to the Nazi regime, whose intentions were made well known to the world. As a result of universal silence and appeasement, Germany invaded Poland, overran Europe and North Africa, and carried out its stated intention to kill millions of people.
In these ceremonies, we remember the valiant uprisings in the ghettos of Warsaw, Vilna, Bialystock, Kovno and others. We remember the partisan fighters in the forests and the underground movements. We remember the daring revolts in the death camps at Treblinka and Sobibor and the demolition of crematorium number four at Auschwitz-Birkenau, with smuggled explosives.
In 1943, a precious few would try to help the Jews of Europe-- the Danes, the Bulgarians, and a tiny village in France called Le Chambon. While noble, these efforts were too little, too late. Largely, the world stood by and watched innocent people perish, similar to responses we have witnessed in similar situations since.
Recently, at Yad Vashem, in Israel, President Bush challenged the decision of the Allies not to bomb the tracks of Auschwitz, a decision that undoubtedly cost the lives of thousands of human beings, including my grandparents and two young uncles. I applaud President Bush and I recently thanked him personally for his comments. Josh—I would appreciate it if you would re-convey my sentiments to him. He has been a great friend of our Museum and a great champion of Holocaust remembrance.
Today, another enemy of democracy has made well known its intentions to kill millions of people. Whether it be six million in Israel, or millions in Spain, London, Germany, the Persian Gulf, New York, or elsewhere; the declared intentions are unambiguous. At least one whole nation has been targeted for destruction with the threat to “wipe it off the map.” History should have taught us that democracies that let such pledges stand do so at their own peril.
So in the name of the victims, I call on the assembled leaders and the rest of the world to assure that no country that threatens such destruction will ever obtain the means to achieve it. Nuclear weapons in the hands of aggressor fanatics cannot be tolerated. By my articulating these words to you in this building, in this great hall of freedom, I am declaring my resistance to this notion. It would be far too easy to light twelve candles for twelve million murdered rather than six candles for six million. The harder work is to make sure that that does not happen. No more candles. Not anywhere. Never again.
Assisting us with the candle lighting today is Midshipman Justin Bardin, a senior at the United States Naval Academy. Midshipman Bardin has worked with Museum educators to incorporate the lessons of the Holocaust as a key component of the Naval Academy’s Character Development program.
The first candle will be lit by Representative Jerry Moran of Kansas and Susan Taube, a survivor from Germany who is a volunteer at the Museum.
The second candle will be lit by Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina and Samuel Steinberg who was born in Poland, and lost his family in the Holocaust.
The third candle will be lit by Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Irene Katz, a survivor from Germany.
The fourth candle will be lit by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and Henryk Schwarz, a survivor from Poland.
The fifth candle will be lit by Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota who is a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and Frieda Weinberg, a survivor from Poland.
The sixth candle will be lit by Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado and Chris Lerman, a survivor from Poland whose husband, the late Miles Lerman, also a survivor, was Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council from 1993 to 2000. Joining them is the righteous Father Patrick Debois, a French Priest, who has almost single-handedly located thousands of mass graves in the former USSR, where more than 1.5 million Jews lay buried, in order to honor their memories and to record the history of their murders.