David Petraeus

National Holocaust Museum National Days of Remembrance Address

delivered 15 April 2008, U.S. Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.


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 survivors, 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 former.

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 compassion.

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.

See also: The United States Holocaust Museum

Original Text Source: ushmm.org

Page Updated: 1/23/22

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