Office of the Chairman
September 27, 1979
Dear Mr. President:
It is with a deep sense of privilege that I submit to you, in accordance with your request, the report of your Commission on the Holocaust. Never before have its members, individually and collectively, given so much of themselves to a task that is both awesome and forbidding, a task which required reaching far back into the past as well as taking a hard look into the future.
Our central focus was memory--our own and that of the victims during a time of unprecedented evil and suffering. That was the Holocaust, an era we must remember not only because of the dead; it is too late for them. Not only because of the survivors; it may even be late for them. Our remembering is an act of generosity, aimed at saving men and women from apathy to evil, if not from evil itself.
We wish, through the work of this Commission, to reach and transform as many human beings as possible. We hope to share our conviction that when war and genocide unleash hatred against any one people or peoples, all are ultimately engulfed in the fire.
With this conviction and mindful of your mandate, Mr. President, we have explored during the past several months of our existence the various ways and means of remembering--and of moving others to remember--the Holocaust and its victims, an event that was intended to erase memory.
Our first question may sound rhetorical: Why remember, why remember at all? Is not human nature opposed to keeping alive memories that hurt and disturb? The more cruel the wound, the greater the effort to cover it, to hide it beneath other wounds, other scars. Why then cling to unbearable memories that may forever rob us of our sleep? Why not forget, turn the page, and proclaim: let it remain buried beneath the dark nightmares of our subconscious. Why not spare our children the weight of our collective burden and allow them to start their lives free of nocturnal obsessions and complexes, free of Auschwitz and its shadows?
These questions, Mr. President, would not perhaps be devoid of merit if it were possible to extirpate the Holocaust from history and make believe we can forget. But it is not possible and we cannot. Like it or not, the Event must and will dominate future events. Its centrality in the creative endeavors of our contemporaries remains undisputed. Philosophers and social scientists, psychologists and moralists, theologians and artists: all have termed it a watershed in the annals of mankind. What was comprehensible before Treblinka is comprehensible no longer. After Treblinka, man's ability to cope with his condition was shattered; he was pushed to his limits and beyond. Whatever has happened since must therefore be judged in the light of Treblinka. Forgetfulness is no solution.
Treblinka and Auschwitz, Majdanek and Belzec, Buchenwald and Ponar, these and other capitals of the Holocaust kingdom must therefore be remembered, and for several reasons.
First, 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. Not to remember the dead now would mean to become accomplices to their murderers.
Second, we cannot deny the victims the fulfillment of their last wish; their idée fixe to bear witness. What the merchant from Saloniki, the child from Lodz, the rabbi from Radzimin, the carpenter from Warsaw and the scribe from Vilna had in common was the passion, the compulsion to tell the tale--or to enable someone else to do so. Every ghetto had its historians, every deathcamp its chroniclers. Young and old, learned and unlearned, everybody kept diaries, wrote journals, composed poems and prayers. They wanted to remember and to be remembered. They wanted to defeat the enemy's conspiracy of silence, to communicate a spark of the fire that nearly consumed their generation, and, above all, to serve as warning to future generations. Instead of looking with contempt upon mankind that betrayed them, the victims dreamed of redeeming it with their own charred souls. Instead of despairing of man and his possible salvation, they put their faith in him. Defying all logic, all reason, they opted for humanity and chose to try, by means of their testimony, to save it from indifference that might result in the ultimate catastrophe, the nuclear one.
Third, we must remember for our own sake, for the sake of our own humanity. Indifference to the victims would result, inevitably, in indifference to ourselves, an indifference that would ultimately no longer be sin but, in the words of our Commissioner Bayard Rustin, "a terrifying curse" and its own punishment.
The most vital lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust era is that Auschwitz was possible because the enemy of the Jewish people and of mankind--and it is always the same enemy--succeeded in dividing, in separating, in splitting human society, nation against nation, Christian against Jew, young against old. And not enough people cared. In Germany and other occupied countries, most spectators chose not to interfere with the killers; in other lands, too, many persons chose to remain neutral. As a result, the killers killed, the victims died, and the world remained world.
Still, the killers could not be sure. In the beginning they made one move and waited. Only when there was no reaction did they make another move and still another. From racial laws to medieval decrees, from illegal expulsions to the establishment of ghettos and then to the invention of deathcamps, the killers carried out their plans only when they realized that the outside world simply did not care about the Jewish victims. Soon after, they decided they could do the same thing, with equal impunity, to other peoples as well. As always, they began with Jews. As always, they did not stop with Jews alone.
Granted that we must remember, Mr. President, the next question your Commission had to examine was whom are we to remember? It is vital that the American people come to understand the distinctive reality of the Holocaust: millions of innocent civilians were tragically killed by the Nazis. They must be remembered. However, there exists a moral imperative for special emphasis on the six million Jews. While not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims, destined for annihilation solely because they were born Jewish. They were doomed not because of something they had done or proclaimed or acquired but because of who they were: sons and daughters of the Jewish people. As such they were sentenced to death collectively and individually as part of an official and "legal" plan unprecedented in the annals of history.
During our journey to Eastern Europe--a full description of which is attached (Appendix B)--the Commission observed that while Jews are sometimes mentioned on public monuments in Poland, they were not referred to in Russia at all. In Kiev's Babi Yar, for instance, where nearly 80,000 Jews were murdered in September 1941, the word Jew is totally absent from the memorial inscriptions.
Our Commission believes that because they were the principal target of Hitler's Final Solution, we must remember the six million Jews and, through them and beyond them, but never without them, rescue from oblivion all the men, women and children, Jewish and non-Jewish, who perished in those years in the forests and camps of the kingdom of night.
The universality of the Holocaust lies in its uniqueness: the Event is essentially Jewish, yet its interpretation is universal. It involved even distant nations and persons who lived far away from Birkenau's flames or who were born afterward.
Our own country was also involved, Mr. President. The valiant American nation fought Hitler and Fascism and paid for its bravery and idealism with the lives of hundreds and thousands of its sons; their sacrifices shall not be forgotten. And yet, and yet, away from the battlefield, the judgment of history will be harsh. Sadly but realistically, our great government was not without blemish. One cannot but wonder what might have happened had the then American President and his advisors demonstrated concern and compassion by appointing in 1942 or 1943 a President's Commission to prevent the Holocaust. How many victims, Jews and non-Jews, could have been saved had we changed our immigration laws, opened our gates more widely, protested more forcefully. We did not. Why not? This aspect of the Event must and will be explored thoroughly and honestly within the framework of the Commission's work. The decision to face the issue constitutes an act of moral courage worthy of our nation.
The question of how to remember makes up the bulk of the Commission's report. Memorial, museum, education, research, commemoration, action to prevent a recurrence: these are our areas of concern. I hope that these recommendations will be acceptable to you, Mr. President, reflecting as they do the joint thinking of the members of the Commission and its advisors over a period of 7 months.
During that time, we held meetings and hearings and studied known and hitherto undisclosed material. Our hope was to reach a consensus among our diverse membership, which includes academicians and civic leaders, Christians and Jews, native Americans and survivors from the deathcamps who found a welcome and a refuge here and who now, as American citizens, enjoy the privileges of our democracy.
Special attention was paid to the opinions, views, and feelings of the survivors, men and women who know the problems from the inside and who ask for nothing more than the opportunity to show their gratitude. "Our adopted country was kind to us," says Commissioner Sigmund Strochlitz, "and we wish to repay in some way by helping to build a strong and human society based on equality and justice for all." Their willingness to share their knowledge, their pain, their anguish, even their agony, is motivated solely by their conviction that their survival was for a purpose. A survivor sees himself or herself as a messenger and guardian of secrets entrusted by the dead. A survivor fears he or she may be the last to remember, the last to warn, the last to tell the tale that cannot be told, the tale that must be told in its totality, before it is too late, before the last witness leaves the stage and takes his awesome testimony back to the dead.
In the hope that you will enable this testimony to be brought to the attention of the American people, and the world, I submit the attached report to you, Mr. President.
The Honorable Jimmy Carter
President of the United States
Washington, D.C. 20500
[State Department officials] have not only failed to use the Government machinery at their disposal to rescue Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.The preceding memo was written at the height of the war, when the industries of death were working 24 hours a day to eliminate European Jewry, yet there was still time to save Hungarian Jews. The document marked a turning-point in American policies toward the Holocaust for it moved the President to appoint the War Refugee Board. Prior to entering the war, the United States had reacted to Nazi atrocities with guarded outrage and quiet diplomacy. Many isolationists had considered the Nazi treatment of Jews a German domestic matter. When emigration was still part of the Nazi approach to the Jewish question American officials erected paper walls by rigidly enforcing both quota regulations and obscure requirements of the immigration laws so as to minimize the number of persons admitted to our shores. Jewish children were summarily denied admission or any form of preferential treatment. American consular officers demanded that immigration applicants produce certificates of good character from their government at the very time that the Nazis considered Jewishness itself criminal. The American principle of separation of church and state, which blinds our laws to the religious affiliation of individuals, found ironic misapplication. Instead of being recognized as refugees, German Jews were considered citizens of a hostile nation and were thus excluded.
They have not only failed to cooperate with private organizations in the efforts of these organizations to work out individual programs of their own, but have taken steps designed to prevent these programs from being put into effect.
They not only have failed to facilitate the obtaining of information concering Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe but in their official capacity have gone so far as to surreptitiously attempt to stop the obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish population of Europe.
They have tried to cover up their guilt by:
- concealment and misrepresentation;
- the giving of false and misleading explanations for their failures to act and their attempts to prevent action; and
- the issuance of false and misleading statements concerning the "action" which they have taken to date.*
The Commission recommends that a National Holocaust Memorial/Museum be erected in Washington, D. C. The museum must be of symbolic and artistic beauty, visually and emotionally moving in accordance with the solemn nature of the Holocaust.While the Commission has reached no specific conclusions as to the exact programmatic content of the museum--such conclusions await the creative imagination of designers, planners, and architects working in cooperation with scholars and survivors--it has formulated guidelines for the substantive themes to be conveyed.
The Commission proposes that the museum become a Federal institution, perhaps an autonomous bureau of the Smithsonian Institution offering extension services to the public, to scholars, and to other institutions.
The museum would present the Holocaust through pictorial accounts, films, and other visual exhibits within a framework that is not merely reportorial but analytic, encouraging reflection and questioning. Furthermore, the museum would provide a fluid medium in which to apply historical events to contemporary complexities; its presentations would not be static but designed to elicit an evolving understanding. Recent technological innovations in computers and information banks now make it possible for museum visitors to become active learners and inquirers.
Museum exhibits would focus on the six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust and millions of other victims. Changing displays would allow for emphasis on areas of current concern.
Special emphasis would also be placed on the American aspect of the Holocaust--the absence of American response (exclusion of refugees, denials of the Holocaust, etc.), the American liberation of the camps, the reception of survivors after 1945, the lives rebuilt in this country and their contribution to American society and civilization, the development of a new sensitivity to the Holocaust, and the growing respect for the multi-ethnic, multi-dimensional aspects of American culture. Also incorporated would be the life and culture of the victims and not just the destruction process. Similarly, the museum would depict the extraordinary efforts to preserve human dignity and life during the Holocaust, the heroic resistance efforts, and the response of renewed life after the Event.
The museum would house a library, an archive of Holocaust materials, computer linkage to existing centers of Holocaust documentation, and a reference staff. Such facilities would enable both the general public and specialized scholars to study the record of the Holocaust. Conference rooms, a lecture hall, and audiovisual equipment would also be provided.
The Commission recommends that there be included as part of a Holocaust memorial an Educational Foundation dedicated to the pursuit of educational work through grants, extension services, joint projects, research and explo ration of issues raised by the Holocaust for all areas of human knowledge and public policy.Because of the Commission’s conviction that the teaching of the Holocaust is a critical dimension of the living memorial, the Educational Foundation is proposed to complement the museum by helping and encouraging the introduction of the study of the Holocaust in junior and senior high schools and universities, as well as by stimulating the development of resources for such teaching and study. Further, the Educational Foundation would encourage research on the Holocaust and promote the interaction of scholars and educators.
The Foundation should stimulate and support such work in all sections of the country within existing programs, both academic and educational, as well as within the network of institutions that deal with the Holocaust. The Educational Foundation should also assist with the development of appropriate curricula and resource material while working cooperatively with those sc hoof systems which wish to implement the study of the Holocaust. The Washington center would function also as a clearinghouse for the exchange of information.
To implement the conviction of the Commission that the study of the Holocaust become part of the curriculum in every school system in the country, the Foundation should include various support systems, financial aid, evaluation of Holocaust courses presently offered in public and private schools, consortia, conferences, teacher-training workshops, and summer institutes for educators and scholars.
In the area of higher education, the Foundation should make available to scholars and graduate students fellowships for research and travel as well as matching grants for institutions or faculty who work with students. Other activities to be coordinated by the Educational Foundation would involve project funding, translations into English of important works in many languages and a visiting faculty program.
The Commission recommends that a publishing program be part of the Educational Foundation, with priority given to out-of-print classics, new works of special merit, survivors’ accounts, and documentary or photographic publication. Emphasis should also be placed on scholarly studies which are essential to an understanding of the Holocaust but which are not commercially viable.
Finally, in recognition of the powerful educational role of the media, the Foundation should offer development grants and prizes for work in the arts, literature, and the media.
The Commission recommends that a Committee on Conscience composed of distinguished moral leaders in America be appointed. This Committee would receive reports of genocide (actual or potential) anywhere in the world. In the event of any outbreak, it would have access to the President, the Congress, and the public in order to alert the national conscience, influence policy makers, and stimulate worldwide action to bring such acts to a halt.Of all the issues addressed by the Commission, none was as perplexing or as urgent as the need to insure that such a totally inhuman assault as the Holocaust--or any partial version thereof--never recurs. The Commission was burdened by the knowledge that 35 years of post-Holocaust history testify to how little has been learned. Only a conscious, concerted attempt to learn from past errors can prevent recurrence to any racial, religious, ethnic, or national group. A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past.
Our children will deal harshly with us if we fail. The conference at Evian 41 years ago took place amidst the same comfort and beauty we enjoy at our own deliberations today. One observer at those proceedings--moved by the contrast between the setting and the task--said this:Let us not be like the others. Let us renounce that legacy of shame. Let us reach beyond metaphor. Let us honor the moral principles we inherit. Let us do something meaningful--something profound--to stem this misery. We face a world problem. Let us fashion a world solution.
"These poor people and these great principles seem so far away. To one who has attended other conferences on Lake Geneva, the most striking thing on the eve of this one is that the atmosphere is so much like the others."
The Commission recommends that the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust be proclaimed in perpetuity to be held annually, commencing on the Sunday of (or preceding) the internationally recognized Holocaust Commemoration Day.The President charged the Commission to implement the Congressional resolution calling for the observance of April 28 and 29, 1979, as "Days of Remembrance." The authors wanted the observance "to occur on days when Americans worship in the churches and synagogues of the nation, to coincide with the internationally recognized Holocaust Commemoration Day, and to mark the anniversary of a significant American involvement in the Holocaust, namely, the liberation of Dachau by American troops." Mindful of the legislative intent and the task of commemorating events so shattering as to defy description, the Commission extended the commemoration to a week-long period so as to include the internationally recognized Holocaust Commemoration Day.
The Commission further recommends that the Holocaust Memorial be charged in its charter with the continuing responsibility to develop means of commemorating the Days of Remembrance. This mandate is integral to the work of the proposed Holocaust Memorial.
The Commission concludes that the proposed physical memorial/museum to the Holocaust with its educational foundation is achievable.In accordance with the President’s guidelines and in the light of the universal significance of the Holocaust, the Commission holds that funding for the memorial should be realized principally through public subscription. Despite the size of the project, the Commission believes that it can receive extensive public support.
The Commission recommends that financial support he provided through a public-private partnership involving government participation and private fund-raising, employing the model of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and other major memorials. The Federal Government would provide seed money (up to $1 million) for the broad design of facilities and program plus a challenge grant to be matched in the private sector over a 3-year period.
The Commission respectfully requests the direct moral support, endorsement, and involvement of the White House in this effort.
The sources of funds for establishing and maintaining the Holocaust mem orial and its programs can include large individual contributors, foundations, associations, institutions, corporations, civic organizations. churches, and synagogues as well as voluntary contributions from Americans in all walks of life throughout the country.