Madam Speaker, Members
of Congress and the Administration, Ambassador Oren, Chairman
Zeidman, members of the diplomatic corps, survivors, liberators of
the camps, family members of
officer Stephen John[s].
We are assembled here
today to honor and to remember the victims of
the Holocaust and
their liberators, to remember the great atrocity of which mankind is
capable, and to remember the great resilience and humanity of which
mankind is capable, as well.
Today, we are both
mourners and celebrants. We are baffled by man’s capacity for
evil. But we are awed by our capacity for recovery -- for the men
and women who walked or were carried out of the death camps, and
their descendents, have enriched our world immeasurably in the
sciences and in the arts, in literature and in philanthropy. They
have made extraordinary contributions in academia, in business, and
in government. And they have, of course,
helped build a nation
that stands as one of our great allies. The survivors have, in
short, made our country and our world better, leaving lasting
achievements wherever they settled.
We gather today as well
because the Holocaust has left an indelible mark on our world. We
are different for what took place in the death camps. Because of
them, we approach life with fewer illusions -- with hope, to be sure,
but with sobriety, as well. We recall that the fire that consumed
so much of civilization in the last century was ignited initially by
small, yet monumental, crimes.
It is thus the duty of
subsequent generations to read the storms before they break upon
us. We can never avert our gaze. It was, after all, but the blink
of an eye from Kristalnacht to the death camps. Humanity plunged
into the abyss, and then did its best to recover. It could never
call back the victims. But we are wiser for having seen how order
can bend to the ways of terrible men.
As we remember the
victims and survivors today, we also remember and honor the American
soldiers who liberated the survivors of the camps 65 years ago. We
salute once again the thousands upon thousands of Americans who
donned the uniform, freed a continent, and then saved those who
survived the living hell of the concentration camps.
We conduct this ceremony
in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol – one of the most
impressive locations in one of America’s most important buildings.
It is entirely fitting that we should hold this commemoration in
this special place because this setting reminds us of the powerful
responsibilities we bear as a nation. Indeed, we are surrounded by
art depicting the birth of our country and all that it stands for,
and looked down upon by statues of those who shaped our history.
One of those statues is
of President Abraham Lincoln, who reminded Congress in 1862 that
those who “hold the power and bear the responsibility” cannot escape
the burden of history: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the
last best hope of earth,” he observed. Indeed, eight decades after
he spoke those words, with the world confronting the peril that was
the Third Reich, American soldiers served as the “last best hope”
and “nobly saved” millions who otherwise would have perished.
On April 15, 1945 -- 65
years ago this day -- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded the
Allied Forces in Europe, wrote to General George C. Marshall, the
Chief of Staff of the United States Army. In his letter, Eisenhower
reported what he saw at the Ohrdrurf concentration camp. Indeed,
what he witnessed made such an impression upon him that he insisted
that the sights and sounds of the camps be captured for posterity –
lest someday, somehow, the world might forget or even deny that such
atrocities had occurred.
"The things I saw beggar
description," General Eisenhower wrote. "The visual evidence and
the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality
were overpowering. In one room, where they piled up twenty or
thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even
enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit
deliberately,” Eisenhower explained, “in order to be in the position
to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future,
there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to
‘propaganda.’” As early as 1945, this great soldier-statesman seemed
to look into the future and foresee a day when some people would
seek to deny an undeniable historical truth.
Countless survivors have
dedicated their lives to ensuring that we never forget, men and
women including, of course,
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. The fact
that Professor Wiesel lived to tell about his experience has proven
to be of enormous consequence for mankind. No one has more
thoughtfully represented the Holocaust survivors than he has,
through his leadership of efforts to capture for history, and to
ensure continued education on, the Holocaust as the Founding
Chairman of the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I’ve
gotten to know Professor Wiesel over the past few years and each
encounter has led me to recognize further what a truly great man he
is and how extraordinarily fortunate we are that he survived his
imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Here in the Capitol
today, we also remember another survivor -- a man many here knew well
and respected highly -- Congressman
Tom Lantos, who walked the
corridors of this building for over 27 years and was taken from us
two years ago. Like Elie Wiesel and many others, he also worked to
educate our country and the world about the Holocaust, and he fought
vigorously to ensure that such a tragedy could never happen again.
A generation of
Americans fought in World War II and hundreds of thousands of them
died, staring evil in the face, in the effort to defeat the Nazis
and bring the Third Reich to an end. We -- and indeed all of
humanity -- owe them an eternal debt of gratitude for accomplishing
their mission in Europe and for giving Holocaust survivors the
greatest gifts of all -- their lives and their freedom.
As we commemorate the
liberation of the camps, it is important that we not only remember
the mission carried out by the men and women we honor today; it is
also important that we remember the way in which they performed that
mission. The sincere compassion, genuine kindness, and abiding
concern they demonstrated for those they rescued were as admirable
as the courage they’d demonstrated throughout the liberation of what
had been described as "Fortress Europe." Indeed, the wonderful
qualities they demonstrated in 1945 have been written about
repeatedly by Holocaust survivors, and we recall those qualities
here today as well.
"I was there when
American liberators arrived,"
Elie Wiesel later recalled, "and they
gave us back our lives. And what I felt for them then nourishes me
to the end of my days. If you only knew what we tried to do with
them then, we who were so weak that we couldn't carry our own lives
-- we tried to carry them in triumph!"
One hundred and twenty of
those liberators, members of what, deservedly, has come to be known
as the Greatest Generation, are here with us today. These heroes
and their comrades carried out one of the noblest of World War II
missions when they rescued the survivors of the concentration camps
from certain death.
Yesterday, at the United
States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I had the privilege of meeting
some of these heroes -- men and women who were among the first
Americans to discover the horrors of the Nazi regime. For some,
this was their first visit to the museum. And as many of you know,
the first objects that greeted them when they walked through the
doors of the Museum were the flags of the liberating units, the
flags of their old outfits, the flags of freedom that are also
proudly displayed here this morning.
The liberators with us
here today should know that their actions continue to inspire those
who wear our Nation’s uniform. Their units remain proud of their
noble actions. Their courage and compassion feature prominently in
the histories of the storied divisions whose colors are represented
here today, and those qualities are etched in the hearts of all who
hear of their valiant deeds.
In contrast to that
compassion for fellow human beings was, of course, the barbarism of
those who sought to exterminate the entire Jewish people on the
European continent, those who ordered the establishment of the camps
and directed their activities. And it is important, again, that we
recall at this ceremony that inhumanity, as well. Indeed, it is
instructive, periodically, that we remember what can happen when
demonic dictators are able to hijack a country. We should never
forget that. And thanks to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, to the
writings of Elie Wiesel, the speeches of Congressman Lantos, and the
efforts of the entire survivor community, we will never forget what
man is capable of doing to his fellow man.
But it is of even
greater importance, of course, to remember and to honor the
resilience that so many courageous souls demonstrated in the face of
those horrors. And so, today, we not only remember and honor the
victims of the Holocaust, we also vow once again to ensure that
their stories are never forgotten.
Thus, we honor those who
survived, those who bore witness to the Holocaust, and, those who,
with great courage, continue to share their experiences with the
world. Indeed, some 90 survivors still volunteer their time at the
Holocaust Memorial Museum and speak throughout the country, telling
the very personal, poignant stories of millions. Each year the
accounts of their experiences touch millions -- many of them young
people on school-trips to Washington -- students who see history
come to life for the first time and who leave the museum knowing
that they, like all of us, have a choice to make: we can watch
history go by or we can do something positive to help others less
fortunate than we.
Those survivors, and all
who listen to and learn from their stories, hold the promise of
hope, of renewal -- the promise of a new spring – as one of the
Gerda Weissmann Klein, puts it. Indeed, World War II saw
the heights and the depths that humanity can reach, and we must
never forget the latter even as we continue to draw hope from the
I’d like to end this
morning by addressing the soldiers of "The Greatest Generation" who
are here with us today and all those they represent. On this 65th anniversary
of the liberation of the concentration camps, we salute you and
those with whom you were privileged to serve in what General
Eisenhower termed, "The Great Crusade."
I know that some of you
have arrived at a point in your lives when individuals inevitably
begin to wonder what kind of footsteps they’ve left in the sands of
time. Well, all of us here today and all those watching around the
world want to assure you that you have written an extraordinary
chapter in the history of mankind, that you have left huge footsteps
and a clearly marked path of accomplishment, sacrifice, service, and
Those of us who are
privileged to wear our Nation’s uniform today often note that we
stand on the shoulders of those who wore the uniform before us. And
because of what those of your generation achieved, because of your
accomplishments, we stand very tall indeed. You should know that
today’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines stand in awe of what
you and your generation did some 65 years ago, and we continue to
draw enormous inspiration from the example that you set.
Just as the horrors of
the death camps will never be forgotten, neither will your courage,
selflessness, or compassion. And, so, on behalf of those who wear
the uniform today, thank you for helping to end one of the most
barbaric chapters of human history and for ushering in "the promise
of a new spring."
In 1945, at
concentration camps across Europe, liberating soldiers were greeted
with cheers, with hope, and at one camp, with a large, hand-made
American flag. That flag was the secret project that spring of
those held at the concentration camp at
Mauthausen. The camp
members used sheets from the laundry, red fabric from old Nazi
banners, and blue-gray cloth from their ragged prison jackets. For
countless hours, they worked at night, sewing tiny, even stitches --
with hope in their hearts and faith in the future. In early May,
finally, they were liberated by the 11th Armored Division and when
Colonel Richard Seibel, one of the leaders of the Thunderbolt
Division arrived, the survivors of Mauthausen presented him with a
gift -- a large American flag. He took the flag, held it up, and
kissed it. He thanked the survivors over and over again,
recognizing the amazing courage and spirit that it had taken for
them to make the flag. For weeks, that powerful, moving symbol of
freedom flew over the camp at Mauthausen. And 65 years later, that
same flag is preserved so that future generations will know its
story and understand the emotions that it represents.
Today we remember, we
celebrate, and we honor those who sewed the flag and the soldiers
for whom they sewed it.
Thank you very much.