Laura Bush, First Lady
May 5, 2005, The Capitol Rotunda, Washington, DC
Thank you, Fred Zeidman and Ruth Mandel, for your leadership of the US Holocaust Memorial Council. Thanks to the Members of Congress who are here with us, as well as the members of the diplomatic corps. Thank you, Susan Eisenhower, for representing your grandfather, who was a hero of freedom. I particularly want to express my gratitude to the survivors and the liberators who bear living witness to the Holocaust. Your presence is evidence that good will always triumph over evil.
Four years ago, I accompanied my husband here when he delivered remarks to observe the Day of Remembrance. My mother was with us that day, and neither of us knew when we came to this ceremony that the flags of the liberating units would be brought into the Rotunda. When we saw the Timberwolf on the 104th Infantry Division, we immediately recognized it as the symbol of my father's World War II unit. It was moving and it brought back a flood of memories. I'm honored to be here again today this year to see these proud flags of liberation.
The men and women of the Allied forces were fighting evil and cruelty. Six million Jews perished in the Holocaust. They were stripped of their dignity and robbed of their lives solely because of who they were and the faith they practiced. It was not the first time evil men had sought the destruction of the Jewish people. Even today, we see incidences of antisemitism around the world. The survivors of the Holocaust bear witness to the danger of what antisemitism can become, and their stories of survival remind us that when we are confronted by antisemitism, we must fight it.
The scope of the horror of the death camps emerged 60 years ago as Allied troops liberated the survivors. First Majdanek. Later Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buchenwald. One by one, the gates opened to reveal the horrors inside, and then to let in the light.
Survivors stepped forward to describe what had occurred, and then to carry forward the memory of mothers, fathers, children, and friends who were the victims. The liberated saw troops wearing the uniforms of many nations, and viewed them as "angels from heaven."
The liberators brought freedom. They also brought dignity. Men and women in the camps had been treated as less than human. They were given numbers for identification. They were deployed for slave labor and tossed aside when they could no longer work.
When the liberators came, simple acts gave rise to profound joy. A survivor named Gerda Weissman Klein recalled her liberation in an interview recorded in this Museum. An American soldier greeted Gerda and asked, "May I see the other ladies?" After six years of being addressed with insults and slurs, to be called a lady was an overwhelming courtesy. The soldier asked her to come with him, and Gerda said, "He held the door open for me and let me precede him, and in that gesture restored my humanity."
A survivor named Alan Zimm remembers the Allied soldiers who liberated him from Bergen-Belsen. They called to the people inside the camp in many different languages, each time with the same simple message: My dear friends, from now on, you are free.
The liberators themselves remember the scenes. They also became keepers of memories, witnesses to the evil. Few could comprehend what they saw. Young men, many in their teens, hardened by years of fighting their way across Europe, at the camps they wept for the people they met. One American who participated in the liberation of Dachau recalled that with just one look at the survivors, he quotes, "We realized what this war was all about."
Many of the soldiers returned home, unable to talk about their experiences at the camps. The emotions were too raw, the images too painful. Words could not fully convey what happened.
My father's unit, the 104th Infantry, helped to liberate the camp at Nordhausen. My father is no longer living, but when I used to ask him about that time, he couldn't bear to talk about it. I think in retrospect, he couldn't bear to tell his child that there could be such evil in the world.
As survivors and liberators leave us, the work of preserving their memories is all the more urgent. Staff and volunteers from the United States Holocaust Museum have conducted thousands of interviews to gather information from eyewitnesses. The information is available to all who seek it. Over the last 12 years, 22 million visitors have walked through the museum. Each year, 150,000 teachers receive training on how to educate children about the Holocaust. The museum has sent survivors to speak to more than 15,000 members of the armed forces at more than 40 military installations.
The museum is our national effort to honor the survivors, the liberators, the victims and the families affected by the Holocaust. It's fitting that it sits on the National Mall, near great monuments to democracy. The lessons of tyranny and liberty that lie at the heart of the Holocaust remind us that preserving freedom requires constant vigilance.
Other museums and memorials exist throughout America and around the world. Some are small and private, located in the hearts and homes of families who cherish their heritage. Others bring communities together to explore the impact of the Holocaust.
I learned of the efforts of a group of teachers and students in Whitwell, Tennessee. Whitwell is a rural town of about 1,600 people, most of them Christian. Students and staff at Whitwell Middle School began studying the Holocaust to explore, as one teacher described it, “what happens when intolerance reigns and when prejudice goes unchecked.”
The students at Whitwell had trouble grasping the magnitude of the Holocaust. When thinking about the Jews who lost their lives in the concentration camp, one student asked, “What is six million?”
In the course of their research, the students discovered that during World War II, the people of Norway wore paper clips on their clothing in silent resistance to the Nazi aggression. Whitwell’s students decided to collect six million paper clips so that they could visualize what a staggering number six million really is.
They ultimately collected 30 million paper clips. The school acquired a World War II-era German railcar, one used to carry people to the camps. Today, the railcar sits on the grounds of Whitwell Middle School, holding 11 million paper clips, to represent the victims of Nazi persecution.
But of course, what's important about the paper clips are the stories that accompanied them. Eyewitness accounts poured in from survivors and liberators, from men and women who had never known their grandparents, or who had lost their siblings. Survivors visited Whitwell to relate their experiences, and to help ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust reached even a small Appalachian town.
A center of Holocaust awareness and memory now sits in one of the least likely places. A movie called "Paper Clips" was produced to document the Whitwell project. Students give tours of their railcar memorial and pass along the knowledge they've gained. Teachers from Whitwell have spoken to students in German schools, and they visited concentration camps.
When President Bush and I visited Auschwitz, I realized that there are things textbooks can't teach. They can't teach you how to feel when you see prayer shawls or baby shoes left by children being torn from their mothers, or prison cells with the scratch marks of attempted escape. But what moved me the most were the thousands of eyeglasses, their lenses still smudged with tears and dirt. It struck me how vulnerable we are as humans, how many needed those glasses to see, and how many people living around the camps and around the world refused to see. We see today and we know what happened and we'll never forget.
Later this week, President Bush and I will visit the Rumbula Holocaust Memorial in Latvia—the site of the second-largest massacre of Jews perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II. Whenever and wherever we remember the victims of the Holocaust, we deepen our commitment to tolerance and freedom. In Whitwell, Tennessee, in Washington, DC, at Yad Vashem, at Auschwitz—new generations are honoring those ideals simply by looking and learning and listening. The voices of the survivors and liberators will one day be silent, but their testimony will be heard forever.
Thank you, and may God bless you all.