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Remarks by Timothy Geithner


Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy F. Geithner.

Timothy F. Geithner: Mr. Speaker, Madam Leader, Mr. Ambassador, Survivors of the Holocaust, and distinguished guests. The Museum asked me to speak today about Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthauís work on behalf of European Jews during World War II. But before I relate those events, I want to start by recognizing Robert M. Morgenthau, his son, who helps maintain the legacy of his father's work. Bob could not be here today because he's giving a speech at West Point at a Holocaust remembrance event. We all admire Bob's long and distinguished work in public service and it's appropriate we honor Bob today as we honor his father. And I also want to pay tribute to the men and women of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum who have made it such a vital institution. And their work has helped show millions of people, in vivid and painful detail, the dangers of unchecked hatred. And they brought us here together in this great place to remember not just the millions who died but also those who chose to act to save lives. Now, Henry Morgenthau served as the Secretary of the Treasury from 1933 to 1945. And he believed that individuals serving in government carry a moral responsibility. He was not constrained by the limits of his formal authority. It didn't matter to Morgenthau that the Treasury Department was not the Department of War or the Department of State. He was not concerned with the risk of criticism or with the strength of opposition to what he believed was right. And Morgenthau was prescient about the threat of war with Nazi Germany and the need for early American involvement. In 1938, he persuaded President Roosevelt to give Treasury significant authority over military purchasing policies two years ahead of the lend lease program. And Morgenthau used this authority to help arm our allies and to help prepare the nation for war. He was instrumental in the effort to stockpile and ramp up production of war materials. And crucially, he enabled the United Kingdom and France to purchase American aircraft, often over the objections of the War Department and isolationists in Congress.Now, later in the war, news of the mass murder of European Jews came to the attention of a small group of men at Treasury. Josiah Dubois, a Treasury Assistant General Counsel, and John Pehle, who was Treasury's Chief of Foreign Funds Control, uncovered mounting evidence that State Department officials were systematically undermining efforts to save Jews in Europe. These State officials were delaying licenses necessary to provide financial support to relief organizations across Europe. Licenses that would have enabled the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews. They were denying visas to refugees and they were blocking the spread of information about the Holocaust. The State Department first received word of the "final solution" An August 11, 1942, in a message from Gerhart Riegner, who was the World Jewish Congress representative in Bern, Switzerland. And upon receiving confirmation of the news that November, the Department then acted to suppress the evidence. Dubois, this lawyer at Treasury, set to work on a report, which was presented to Secretary Morgenthau by the General Counsel of the Treasury, Randolph Paul on January 13, 1944. The memo bore a chilling the title: "Report to the Secretary on the acquiescence of this Government in the murder of the Jews." And the first page read, and I want to quote this: "Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this Government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time the responsibility for this extermination." Morgenthau moved quickly. And that Sunday, January 16, Pehle, Randolph Paul, and Secretary Morgenthau met with President Roosevelt. They explained to the President that, because other parts of the government were resisting action, the only solution was to create a body with independent authority in the matter of refugees. And President Roosevelt agreed, and six days later, he issued executive order 9417, which established the War Refugee Board. The Board's charter declared that it would quote "effectuate with all possible speed the rescue and relief of victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death." John Pehle was named Executive Director. At Morgenthau's direction, Pehle set up office on the fourth floor of the Treasury and began his work. Pehle had to secure private funds for the majority of the board's activity. But Pehle was industrious and he was relentless and he was effective. He secured a haven for 1,000 Jews at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. He helped purchase boats to ferry thousands of refugees out of Romania. Under his leadership, the War Refugee Board streamlined the process for issuing licenses, so that relief organizations in Europe could provide funds and aid within weeks of requesting it. And the board sent representatives to neutral countries, which assisted in evacuating Jews into safe territory. One of those representatives was a Treasury employee named Iver Olsen, who was sent to Sweden. In Stockholm, Olsen helped send a young Swede named Raoul Wallenberg under diplomatic cover into Hungary. And Wallenberg's efforts saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Iver Olsonís son Jerry is with us today, as is George Lesser, whose father Lawrence Lesser also served on the War Refugee Board. And by the end of the war, the work of Pehle and the board had saved some 200,000 Jews from almost certain death. Now, years later, Pehle said, "What we did was little enough. It was late. Late and little." But, without the work of the War Refugee Board, and without the actions Morgenthau had taken to arm and prepare the allies, the history of that time would have been even darker. When we think about the Holocaust, we are forced to come to terms with more than just the evil of Adolf Hitler. We must also confront the failures that allowed this genocide to occur. The moral failures, the institutional failures, the cowardice and apathy and hate. Henry Morgenthau, John Pehle, and Joe Dubois refused to accept those failures. They knew that when institutions fail, individuals must act. When warned by an official of the political risks in what Morgenthau was contemplating, Morgenthau responded, "Don't worry about the publicity. What I want is intelligence and courage." And these men understood their own power as individuals in public life to make a difference. They understood their obligation to do so and they took that nobel obligation seriously. And I am proud to say that this tradition continued at Treasury. Stuart Eizenstat, who served as deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the 1990s, helped achieve a measure of justice for victims of the Holocaust and European Jews, by negotiating, through sheer force of will and individual initiative, landmark agreements with foreign governments covering restitution, compensation for forced labor, recovery of looted art and money, and the payment of insurance policies. More recently, under Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey and a group of individuals at Treasury built from the ground up. The world's most creative and most effective system of financial sanctions to stem the flow of money to terrorists and deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. Their work, led today by Under Secretary of the Treasury David Cohen, is crucial to thwarting those who would kill in the name of hatred. Now, we live in a world in which people still possess an alarming willingness to abuse, to imprison, and to murder others because of the God they worship or because they are different. And in confronting this reality, we are always reminded of the comp lexities of the world, the shades of grey, the intricacies of choice, the risks of action and of inaction. And this world is of course a complicated place. But our basic responsibilities as human beings are not complicated. To protect the weak. To shelter those in need. To resist evil in all its forms. And, these are our responsibilities. They cannot be fulfilled only with thoughtful reflection. They require action. The Talmud says, "Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the world and does not, is responsible for the transgressions of the world." John Pehle, Joe Dubois, and Henry Morgenthau these men understood. They protested against the transgressions of the world. And they made a difference.