Choosing a theme for your Days of Remembrance commemoration can help narrow the vast historical subject of the Holocaust. Each of our themes features a video along with additional resources you can use to enrich your event. If you prefer not to use one of the themes below, we also provide a general overview of the Holocaust poster set (PDF) and PowerPoint Presentation (PPT).
Narrator: The history of the Holocaust raises challenging questions about our responsibility as a nation to offer refuge and rescue to persecuted people from beyond our borders. In the spring of 1939, before the outbreak of World War II, the MS St. Louis set sail from Germany. Most of its 937 passengers were Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution. Five years later, with the world now engulfed in war and well after the United States had learned about the Holocaust, over 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to German killing centers. In both instances, public opinion and government policy determined how the United States responded. What can we learn from American action—and inaction—in the face of these events that could help us prevent future genocides?
[TEXT ON SCREEN] Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses
Narrator: On November 9, 1938, the Nazi Party engaged in a campaign of violence against Jews throughout Germany and Austria, an event that became known as Kristallnacht—night of broken glass.
Jill Pauly, Holocaust Survivor: Kristallnacht started for us early in the morning. My uncle wanted to close the shutters, leaving the outside world outside, and my grandmother said to him, “Stop that. It’s too late. That’s not going to protect us.”
Narrator: After five years of Nazi rule, hundreds of thousands of Jews were desperate to escape. The problem was few countries were willing to take in more refugees. Many looked to the United States, but did not yet have immigrant visas. Some hoped that Cuba might offer temporary refuge until their US visas came through. This set the stage for the voyage of the St Louis.
Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis left Hamburg to go to Cuba, and on board were 937 passengers. The vast majority of these were Jews. This was the beginning of something new, something good, but when they arrived in Havana harbor, those dreams were shattered.
Narrator: The Cuban government reversed its policy, invalidating most of the passengers’ landing certificates. Only those with valid immigration visas could disembark in Havana.
Scott Miller, Director, Curatorial Affairs, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sent a delegate to Cuba, but the negotiations fell apart and the St Louis had to leave Cuban waters. The captain decided that they were going to sail to the United States. They were America bound anyway, so it was believed that there’d be some flexibility. They sent telegrams to government officials, to President Roosevelt, and to the State Department asking for entry. The State Department stated that though they had waiting numbers to get into the United States, they would have to wait their turn and leave American waters.
Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: By 1938 and 1939, public opinion is clearly against Nazi Germany, but that doesn’t translate into a willingness to bring in refugees.
Scott Miller, Director, Curatorial Affairs, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Even confronted with specific lives right off the coast of Miami Beach, American public opinion was so against increasing the immigration quota.
Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: If immigrants come into the United States, it might represent a competition for jobs. Bad economic times fueled xenophobia. It also fueled antisemitism.
Scott Miller, Director, Curatorial Affairs, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: So the St. Louis left American shores on June 7, 1939. Fortunately, with the intervention again of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a deal was brokered with four western European countries to take in the passengers: Belgium, Holland, France, and England.
Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: This was celebrated, that these refugees had finally found homes. What nobody knew at that time is that Europe would be engulfed in war just a few months afterwards.
Narrator: In December 1941, the United States was officially at war with the Axis powers: Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. For Europe’s Jews, the situation had greatly worsened and they were increasingly trapped. By the middle of 1942, information about the Nazi policy to murder Jews began to reach the United States public. We now know that almost two million Jews had been killed by that time.
Victoria Barnett, Director, Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: The persecution of the Jews in Europe had reached a really unimaginable scale, and that millions of people were now threatened with death. There was a new wave of interest in doing something, a sense that there had to be some kind of effort on behalf of the refugees.
Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: This creates a mood among Jewish organizations to call public attention to what’s happening and to urge action to save what remains of Europe’s Jewish population.
Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: So by the end of 1943, there is enough public awareness of the murder of the Jews that the Senate and the House of Representatives issued what is called the Rescue Resolution, calling for a US government agency designed for the relief and rescue of Jews and other persecuted minorities. Simultaneously in the executive branch, a battle was going on between the State Department and the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department, who needed to approve licenses for relief and rescue, realized that the State Department was delaying assisting some of these Jewish aid organizations to send money into Europe.
[TEXT ON SCREEN OF REPORT] “Officials in our State Department…have been guilty…of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.”
Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Treasury Department officials compile a report that is placed before President Roosevelt in January of 1944, and almost immediately Roosevelt decides on the creation of the War Refugee Board.
Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: The War Refugee Board staff came from the Treasury Department. It was a group who worked with sending money overseas. John Pehle, as Director of the Foreign Funds Control, became the executive director largely because of the good work that his group was doing.
Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University: These were people who were really committed—morally committed, as well as politically committed—to saving lives.
Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Board organizes some relief, but for the most part they’re working through other agencies, streamlining the process. They are able to facilitate sending millions of dollars into Europe and have a much greater impact.
Narrator: Still, the War Refugee Board confronted a daunting task. The people it hoped to save remained far behind enemy lines, and the Board could not divert vital military resources from the Allies’ goal of winning the war as soon as possible. Options were very limited.
Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: In the spring of 1944, the War Refugee Board was faced with one of its greatest crises, which was what to do about Hungary.
Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University: The Hungarian government had engaged in secret negotiations to leave the Axis. When the Germans found out about this they sent troops into the country, and along with the troops came Adolf Eichmann’s team of deportation specialists.
Narrator: At the time of the German invasion in March 1944, Hungary was home to the largest Jewish community left in Europe, about 800,000 Jews. Within two months, at the request of the Germans, Hungarian authorities began deporting Jews by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University: President Roosevelt held a news conference in which he warned the Hungarian government not to cooperate with Germany in its persecution. Government shortwave broadcasts to eastern Europe threatened the Hungarian government, that war criminals who cooperated with Germany in mass killings would be prosecuted after the war. This was not enough.
Steven Fenves, Holocaust Survivor: There was a long, long line of railroad cars, and an order came to mount the cars. And I remember even at thirteen I had to help people like my grandmother, people like my aunt, to get up on the high car. And eventually the doors were closed, the locks were put on, and I don't know how many hours wait, and then the trains took off.
Agnes Laszlo Geva, Holocaust Survivor: And we just couldn’t believe that this is possible to transport people like this. It was, of course, standing places only, and there was a small window under the roof and a pail in the corner. It was unbelievable. People became hysterical. They were screaming. Some people were yelling, some people were fainting, some people were crying. It was a situation that I never, ever could imagine to happen to human beings.
Narrator: On July 7, 1944, the Hungarian ruler announced his order to halt the deportations to Auschwitz. A variety of outside pressures, including a US bombing of Budapest on July 2, 1944, influenced his decision. By that time, over 400,000 people had been deported. Hungary’s decision to halt the deportations offered the Jews remaining in Budapest a chance to survive—an opportunity the War Refugee Board seized.
Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University: There were approximately 120,000 Jews in Budapest in July of 1944. For the moment, they were spared, but no one knew how long they would be spared.
Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: The War Refugee Board petitions and cables to all of the neutral nations of Europe—to Portugal, to Spain, to Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey—and asks them if they could increase their diplomatic representation in Hungary.
Narrator: Working through diplomatic posts and other intermediaries, like the International Red Cross, the War Refugee Board assisted a complex network of rescuers. They employed an array of tactics, from false passports and citizenship papers to safe houses and clandestine escapes. These measures enabled tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest to survive. Unfortunately, by July 1944, over 300,000 Hungarian Jews had already lost their lives.
Victoria Barnett, Director, Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: The time for a War Refugee Board would have been before the war, when you really had refugees who were still looking for visas and able in some fashion to get out. If you wait until, in the case of the Holocaust, Hitler begins to expand his Reich across Europe, it's already too late.
Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: I think one of the lessons is that the individual has power. It's public pressure that leads to the rescue resolutions in Congress in the fall of 1943. It's a number of people writing; it's people showing up to protests; it's people saying: I know what's going on in Europe, I believe it, and I want this government to try to stop it.
Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University: People want to know, have we learned from history? Have we learned specifically from the history of the Holocaust? And my answer is yes, but we learn very, very slowly.
Victoria Barnett, Director, Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, US Holocaust Memorial Museum: Terrible things continue to happen. Governments continue to fail to respond sufficiently or soon enough to help victims of genocide around the world, and it’s a tough call. There’s no easy answer. There are challenges to intervening in a foreign country. There are certainly challenges when you implement a refugee policy that lets a lot of people in at once. And yet, we really do need to think about this. When you have millions of people that are left homeless, who are murdered, whose lives are destroyed—those ruins have a ripple effect for every nation on this planet. It carries such a heavy cost that we have a responsibility to figure this one out.
[TEXT ON SCREEN] Many refugees from the St. Louis who returned to Europe were imprisoned or sent to killing centers after Germany invaded western Europe. Two hundred and fifty-four former passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.
Shortly after Kristallnacht, Jill Pauly's family immigrated to Kenya and settled in the United States after the war.
Steven Fenves survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. After the war, he was reunited with his father, Lajos, and sister, Estera. Steven’s grandmother was murdered in the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz and his mother died a few weeks later.
Agnes Laszlo Geva survived the Auschwitz and Plaszow concentration camps with her mother, Rozsa, and sister, Zsuzsanna.
American responses to the persecution and murder of European Jews during the Holocaust invite reflection on the role of individuals, organizations, and governments in confronting hatred and mass atrocities.
Early Warning Signs
Narrator As we remember those whose lives were lost in the Holocaust, we’re confronted by the question, “Could it have been prevented?” While at the time few saw that the events of 1938 were leading to the Holocaust, there were warning signs. Can our understanding of these events help us anticipate and prevent genocide in our own time?
Victoria Barnett, Committee on Church Relations, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 1938 is such a key year because it marked an escalation both of the persecution of the Jews, the violence against Jews. It became more widespread. It also marked an escalation of the Nazi policy of expansion. This is where we can see all the dominoes begin to fall.
Narrator From the time that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, German Jews had gradually seen their rights as citizens stripped away, and their employment options severely limited. But in those early years of the Third Reich, no one could imagine the physical annihilation of the Jews of Europe.
Hedi Pope, Holocaust Survivor My parents and a lot of other of that generation tried to ignore it. They said, “Oh, this isn’t going to last. This man is crazy. It’s not going to last.” Well, they were wrong.
Narrator An initial warning sign of 1938 came in mid-March, when Germany annexed neighboring Austria, an act known as the Anschluss. Within hours, an explosion of violence engulfed the Jewish population in Vienna. It spread throughout Germany in the following months, accompanied by new anti-Jewish legislation. Jews no longer felt safe and tried to get out while they could.
Peter Black, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Beginning in March 1938, you have a real push for the first time since 1933 in Germany of large numbers of people trying to get out at any cost. Even if they had to give up all of their assets.
Narrator But despite official Nazi policy demanding that the Jews leave Germany, emigration was not a simple matter.
Fritz Gluckstein, Holocaust Survivor My parents really tried to leave. But where to go? We had some very distant relatives in the United States and some friends. But you needed an affidavit. And even if you had an affidavit, there was a quota number.
Victoria Barnett, Committee on Church Relations, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum There's several reasons why governments didn’t open their doors. The main one is cold, calculated self-interest. In the United States, you know, looking to the issues that were on the front burner in this country, the depression, the widespread isolationism of the American population, antisemitism.
Narrator The United States was not alone in its refusal to raise its immigration quota.
Peter Black, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Many of the world’s governments showed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany and also showed, obviously, concern for Nazi intentions elsewhere in Europe. But few were willing to take significant steps to meet either crisis.
Narrator This became clear in July of 1938 at the Evian Conference, convened by President Franklin Roosevelt to address the growing humanitarian crisis faced by German Jews.
Ann Millin, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum With the exception of the Dominican Republic, every single country refused to open its doors, to expand its immigration quotas.
Narrator Over the summer of 1938, Germany threatened to invade Czechoslovakia to take control of the Sudetenland, a western border region where the majority of the population was ethnic German. Unprepared for war, Great Britain, France, and Italy agreed to let Germany annex the Sudetenland in an attempt to guarantee peace.
Ann Millin, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum This was a cause for great jubilation in much of Europe because it was believed that war had been forestalled or prevented altogether. Other Europeans realized, though, that this was just Germany flexing its muscles and seeing whether or not the world would back down.
Narrator And soon, Nazi policy toward Jews became even more aggressive. On November 9th and 10th, the Nazi Party unleashed a wave of anti-Jewish violence throughout Greater Germany.
Ann Millin, Historian, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Kristallnacht, the “Night of the Broken Glass,” represents the first national, organized, physical attack on the Jews. It was a very public event. Germans saw it happening, and many participated in it.
Jill Pauly, Holocaust Survivor I saw the smoke and the fire of the synagogue burning, and we both of us, my sister and I, started screaming from fear.
Susan Taube, Holocaust Survivor Mid-morning came a hoard of people to the door. Just smashed the door down, came in with scissors and all kinds of instruments and just demolished the whole apartment.
Jill Pauly, Holocaust Survivor It was so dreadful when my mother went into the house that she at that point internalized what was going to happen to us and to all the other Jews.
Hedi Pope, Holocaust Survivor To me, this was the true beginning of the Holocaust.
Narrator German police rounded up about 30,000 Jewish men and held them in concentration camps. In the weeks that followed, German authorities closed Jewish communal organizations and schools, and forced Jews to sell their businesses, property and stocks to non-Jews, usually at a great loss.
Susan Taube, Holocaust Survivor I mean, no more business, no more income, nothing, nothing. The business was closed. They just put things in front of it, plywood or whatever it was, and nailed it down so nobody could come in anymore.
Narrator In spite of the escalating violence, very few nations, individuals, or groups chose to help. Those who did made a difference. A small group of British and German Jews persuaded the British government to allow unaccompanied Jewish children to enter the United Kingdom under a program known as the Kindertransport.
Victoria Barnett, Committee on Church Relations, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum It's a poignant success story because these are children who were, you know, their families put them on these trains to get out of harm’s way, knowing full well that they might never see their children again. And in many cases didn’t see their children. But the children survived. These were 10,000 lives that were rescued.
Narrator As 1938 ended Nazi Germany’s intentions were increasingly clear. In the coming year, Germany would occupy the Czech lands and invade Poland, igniting World War II. Efforts to rescue Jews, such as the Kindertransport, were effectively shut down. Looking back at the events of 1938, the signs of impending war and the Holocaust are clearer today than they were then. Unfortunately, acts of genocide have continued into the 21st century. But there’s hope that the world has begun to heed the warning signs.
Cameron Hudson, Center for the Prevention of Genocide, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum We’ve learned enough, we’ve seen enough, we’ve studied enough the case of the Holocaust and the cases since the Holocaust to understand what those signs are.
Michael Abramowitz, Center for the Prevention of Genocide, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum The choice is not just between sending in the 101st Airborne and doing nothing. There’s diplomatic efforts, there’s intelligence, there’s financial sanctions. There’s a range of different things that governments can do to prevent genocide.
Cameron Hudson, Center for the Prevention of Genocide, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum The thing that we need to be conscious of is how quickly these events can develop into an act that cannot be undone. And so, why not take preventative steps early on so that we’re not dealing with the effects of true mass violence and genocide?
[Text on screen] Our choices in response to hatred truly do matter. Together we can help fulfill the promise of “Never Again.”
In the pivotal year before Nazi Germany invaded Poland and launched World War II, intervention could have saved many lives. Citizens and countries responded in different ways to the events of 1938. What lessons do their actions hold for us today?
Justice and Accountability
The trials at Nuremberg and the trial of Adolf Eichmann set important precedents and raised questions about the nature of justice in the face of such enormous crimes. Ensuring accountability in the wake of genocide remains an ongoing challenge.
Narration: Winter and Spring, 1945. As Allied troops advanced across Europe toward Germany, they encountered Nazi concentration camps and liberated thousands of prisoners. In the camps, combat-hardened soldiers witnessed first-hand the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazi regime and its so-called policies of “racial superiority.” They found piles of unburied corpses and barracks filled with dead and dying prisoners. The small percentage of inmates who survived often required immediate assistance after months and years of maltreatment, starvation, and forced labor at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower made a deliberate visit to the Ohrdruf concentration camp in order to witness personally the evidence of Nazi atrocities. He urged others to see the camps directly, lest “the stories of Nazi brutality” be forgotten or dismissed as “merely propaganda.” The weeks and months following liberation did not bring an immediate return to normal life. Survivors struggled to restore their health, regain their dignity, and rebuild lives disrupted and destroyed during the Holocaust. Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, we honor and remember the victims of the Holocaust and the military personnel who liberated and cared for the survivors.
George Salton, Survivor: I ran in that direction and as I came onto that place I noticed many prisoners yelling and screaming and jumping and dancing. And there, standing among them were seven giants, young people. They must have been 18 or 19... American soldiers. There were seven or eight of them standing inside the camp. Apparently they cut the wire and came into the camp. They were bewildered by us, wild and unkempt and dirty and, I’m sure, smelly people, jumping and dancing and trying to embrace them and kiss them. And I did too. I also joined the crowd and yelled and screamed and somehow knew that the day of liberation has come. It was a strange feeling for me, however, because as I remember it, on the one hand, I was, I was overwhelmed by this unexpected and unhoped for encounter of freedom, but at the same time, what was happening was outside of me. I really... I didn’t know what to make of it. I knew I was free, but I didn’t count on it. I somehow didn’t know what it meant. And I knew it was great, but I… I was overjoyed because all people around me were overjoyed and were singing and dancing and, and...But I was 17. I was free, but what it meant I wasn’t sure.
Nicholas White, Sergeant, U. S. 7th Army: From there we go into the barracks. They were long, almost like a poultry building that we might see down in Missouri, perhaps a hundred feet long and maybe twenty-five feet wide. But as we went into this first barracks, we were overrun almost by about twenty-five or thirty of these inmates, who came and hugged us and tried to show us the gratitude they had for us being there liberating them. Actually, we did not liberate them. It was the infantry units themselves that liberated these people. But anyway, they were so overwhelmed with emotion that they tried every way they could to show us appreciation. But I remember this young man. His name was, we called him Bud. He and I both had some caramels and I had some K-ration biscuits, and we started to distribute them among these soldiers, or rather, these camp inmates. And the net result was all, we almost started a riot because they fought like animals trying to get anything that looked like food. And this man and I have discussed that since then and we have never encountered such an atmosphere of complete desolation of the, of mankind. And then I recall that in these, in this building itself, it was made like shelves that went clear to the ceiling and they would be just maybe two feet wide and two feet square, and these went the full length of the building, and these people would climb up and slide into these slots, I guess you could call them, and not a blanket, not any kind of bed clothes at all, nothing but pure wood. And there they slept at night, and no, no ventilation, and no sanitary equipment that they would need. But that, what bothered me the most was out of these 25 or 30, there was 6 or 8 that just stared at the walls. I mean, there was not one bit of a feeling of or any kind of expression of who they were or what they were doing there. They just stared at the walls and I’ve often wondered, I wonder how many of these ever will be able to recover from that traumatic experience that they had been through. And so, that left me sad to say the least.
Pat Lynch, First Lieutenant, U.S. Army nurse: They were so thin. I couldn’t pick any of them up. I tried to, but if I were to pick them up I’d tear the skin. So we had to be very, very careful moving them out. The skin was just so terrible. So it would take, oh, about at least three people, one person take the head, one person take the legs, and very carefully lift them up and get them outside, go ahead and get them outside of that place. We put up tents outside. We had cots and clean bedding. So we’d take them out there. Or, if there was a hospital nearby, we’d go and take over that hospital and move them in there. But we couldn’t… for typhus, that was the main thing, there was no medication. Just supportive treatment and get fluids down them. Well they couldn’t drink anything, so we had to feed them with medicine droppers. And we couldn’t give them hypos because there was no place to stick them. There was no skin at all... no muscle, just skin and bone. There was no place to give them a hypo.
Bella Tovey, Survivor: I want you to know that when the war ended, I weighed the equivalent of probably what is 70 pounds, and I was skin and bone. And I do remember that when that British soldier came and asked me... he said he’s... can he do something for me? And I said to him I’d like two things. I’d like him to give me, bring me warm socks. We’re talking, this was already May. It was warm. I was cold. I wanted warm socks, knee-length socks. And I wanted sugar. So he brought me – I was craving sugar, I suppose – he brought me socks and I do remember two things. I remember when he... that I put on the socks and I started to cry because I didn’t have any calf. I was all bones and this... the knee-length socks wouldn’t stay on. But I also remember that when he gave me the sugar, and it may not have been more than maybe a quarter of a pound maybe, a little bag of sugar, but it was maybe, as I said, sugar, just plain sugar. I took that bag and I just poured it into my mouth. I just ate it like that. And I remember... I remember it because he got scared, and he ran out looking for the nurses because he thought God knows what I did to myself by eating all this sugar. And I remember the nurse said to him in German that it’s okay. I was probably just craving sugar.
Gerda Weissman Klein, Survivor, and Kurt Klein, Lieutenant, U.S. Army:
GERDA: My very clear view of freedom and liberation came that morning when I stood in this doorway of that abandoned factory and I saw a car coming down the hill. And the reality of that came when I saw the white star on its hood and not the swastika. There were two men in that car. One jumped out.
KURT: I saw some skeletal figures trying to get some water from a hand pump. But over on the other side, leaning against the wall next to the entrance of the building, I saw a girl standing, and I decided to walk up to her.
GERDA: I remember that aura of him, of that awe, of that disbelief in daylight, to really see someone who fought for our freedom, for my ideals. And he looked like God to me.
KURT: And I asked her in German and in English whether she spoke either language, and she answered me in German.
GERDA: And I knew what I had to say. And I said to him, “We are Jewish, you know.” For a very long time – at least to me it seemed very long – he didn’t answer me. And then his own voice betrayed his emotion. He was wearing dark glasses. I couldn’t see his eyes. He said, “So am I.”
KURT: I asked about her companions.
GERDA: He said, “May I see the other ladies?”A form of address we hadn’t heard for six years. I told him most of the girls were inside. They were too ill to walk. And he said to me, “Won’t you come with me?” I didn’t know what he meant. So he held the door open for me and let me precede him. And that was the moment of restoration of humanity, of humaneness, of dignity, of freedom.
KURT: We went inside the factory. It was an indescribable scene. There were women scattered over the floor on scraps of straw, some of them quite obviously with the mark of death on their faces.
GERDA: I took him to see my friends.
KURT: The girl who was my guide made sort of a sweeping gesture over this scene of devastation and said the following words, “Noble be man, merciful and good.” And I could hardly believe that she was able to summon a poem by the German poet Goethe, which was called, is called, “The Divine,” at such a moment. And there was nothing that she could have said that would have underscored the grim irony of the situation better than what she did.
GERDA: And this first young American of Liberation Day is now my husband. He opened not only the door for me, but the door to my life and my future.
Leon Bass, Sergeant, U.S. 3rd Army: On this day in April 1945, with some of my comrades, I walked through the gates of a place called Buchenwald. I was totally unprepared for what I saw. For someone of 19, they couldn’t be prepared. They haven’t lived long enough. I was still trying to develop my values system. I was still trying to sort things out. And then all of a sudden, slap, right in the face was the horror perpetrated by man against man. But nevertheless the story must be told. We must talk about the crematoriums. We must talk about the dead. We must talk about the denigration of human personalities. How they tried to make people less than human. And the purposes are beyond me. It boggles the mind for me to try to figure out, why? Why would someone take millions of people and in a planned, organized, systematic way try to destroy them and exterminate them? I have yet to come to grips with that in my own mind. But I know that I must share this so that the history books really tell the story as it is. That nobody sugarcoats the history as they did with slavery. And make you think that all slaves loved the plantation when it’s not true. We cannot, even though the revisionists are out there today writing books and telling students that it never happened, we cannot ignore our responsibilities to tell the stories. Yes, we must be graphic. We must use the media. We must come together like this to focus attention across the world. But in the final analysis my friends, if we want to avoid another Holocaust, if we want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again, then we have a personal responsibility to do something about it.
The US soldiers who helped defeat Nazi Germany and liberate the concentration camps were among the first eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. Remembering their stories of freedom inspires us to promote human dignity and confront hatred whenever and wherever it occurs.
The stories of ordinary people who chose to intervene and help rescue Jews, despite the risks, demonstrate that individuals have the power to make a difference. What we do—or choose not to do—matters.
Listen to or read Holocaust survivors’ experiences, told in their own words through oral histories, written testimony, and public programs.