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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > From the Under Secretary > Remarks > 2006 Under Secretary for Political Affairs Remarks

Remarks at the Holocaust Remembrance Days' Luncheon

R. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Washington, DC
April 27, 2006


Thank you, Fred, for your warm introduction. It is an honor to speak to you today both on a personal basis, and also on behalf of Secretary Rice, who is in Bulgaria today and regrets not being here to participate in our national day of remembrance.

I would like to recognize Sarah Bloomfield, the Director of the Museum as well as the dedicated Museum staff with us today -- Arthur Berger, Steven Feinberg, Paul Shapiro and Michelle Gross. I know that Sarah was honored last evening for 20 years of dedicated service and effective leadership. I want to add my own voice to the many who have acknowledged the extraordinary contributions she has made to the Museum and in elevating its international reputation for excellence. I also note the presence with us today of Howard Ganek and Jay Stein, members of the governing council and co-chairs of the Founders' Society. I join all of you in expressing our appreciation for their generosity and resolute support of the Museum -- now a Washington landmark and one of our country's most vital educational and humanistic institutions.

Sit is a special pleasure and privilege to also welcome a champion of Human Rights in the Congress and someone who survived the Second World War and the Holocaust in Hungary -- Congressman Tom Lantos.

Holocaust Remembrance

It is an honor to speak to you today on our nation's Holocaust Remembrance day -- an annual day of observance commemorating the millions of victims of the Holocaust. Sixty one years ago the most infamous Nazi death camp --Auschwitz -- was liberated on January 27, 1945. It made the world fully aware of the extent of the horrors perpetrated on Europe's Jews and other victims. There is nothing more important that we can do here in Washington and in the Department that is responsible for America 's relations with the world, than to bow our heads, more than half a century later, to honor the millions killed by Nazism and to remember them.

Ladies and gentlemen, I know that nearly all of you would not be here today if you did not have a deep personal connection to the most terrible and cruel event in modern history -- the genocide of European Jewry by a vicious tyrant. Some of you are survivors, some the children, siblings, friends of survivors. Some of you lost loved ones in the ovens of the death camps.

I have a personal connection to two survivors but it is far less immediate and sorrowful than your own experiences. So, I offer these thoughts in a respectful way, mindful that my family was protected from the terrible fire of the Holocaust in ways that most of yours were not.

I grew up in an environment as far from the death camps as can be imagined -- in Wellesley, Massachusetts, a lovely town outside of Boston. As a young teenager in 1971, I had heard of the Holocaust but it had not made the kind of impact it has had on my own daughters who have had the benefit of education about the death camps that was not the case for those of us who grew up in the decades after the war's end. And, so, when I visited my barber, Jack Kowal, one day, I was truly puzzled to see a line of blue numbers on his forearm as he cut my hair. I had not noticed them before. “Jack,”I said, “do you mind if I ask why you have tattooed those numbers on your arm?” Jack hesitated and looked at me quizzically with squinting eyes. “You mean to say you don't know what those numbers represent? Haven't I told you that I was in a concentration camp during the war?” I looked back at him and asked in a slightly ashamed way, “What is a concentration camp, Jack?”

Jack was a Polish soldier captured by the Nazis in Poland 's brief but courageous fight against the Wehrmacht in 1939. He was also a Jew. And because of that simple fact, he was sent to Buchenwald. By his own admission he survived while thousands perished, simply because he was a barber by trade and they needed someone to cut the German officers' hair.

Jack survived the war and the Holocaust and married a fellow survivor and they left Europe to liberate themselves from the continent that had wiped out their families. Jack was the first person to bear witness to me about the Holocaust. During many years, he recounted horrible and harrowing stories of unbelievable cruelty and suffering. Our relationship grew close and it was dominated by his remembrance and his need to talk about what happened in the 1940s. In 1983, he visited Washington to attend a Holocaust survivors conference and asked my wife and I to join him when President Reagan spoke to the survivors at the dedication memorial. I will never forget the dinner at the Convention Center when thousands of late middle-aged Americans sat grouped by the cities from which they had come -- Lodz, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague to remember. Jack taught me more about the vagaries of human existence -- the pain and tragedy of a huge crime and the eventual recovery and triumph in the life of a survivor.

There are millions of stories like Jack's. One of the great beauties of the U.S. Holocaust Museum is that you have remembered, you refused to forget. You are the repository of all of the stories from Jack Kowal's to millions of others. You are educating our country, and especially our young people, to know, to reflect on a monumental crime and to remember.

When your doors opened in 1993, my wife's uncle Bernie Rosner was visiting us. Bernie was born a Hungarian Jew and was months away from his Bar Mitzvah in March 1944 when he and his family were rounded up, confined and eventually sent to Auschwitz. His mother and brother were killed that very first day at Auschwitz. His father, a few, weeks later. Bernie, aged 12, survived Auschwitz and then Mauthausen for an entire year and then a death march in the snow until he was found, nearly dead of typhus, by American soldiers. They nursed him back to life and he was sent to a refugee camp in Italy when in 1947, he was preparing for Aliyah to Israel .

To make some spare change, Bernie carried bags for American GI's. One of them, Charlie Merrill, took a liking to this young, energetic boy whose life had been torn apart in the war. He invited Bernie to move to New York and to be adopted by the Merrill family.

When Bernie's ship arrived in New York , and he was surprised to be taken in a limousine to their Park Avenue penthouse, it turned out that Charlie Merrill, Bernie's adoptive father, was son of the Wall Street Tycoon of Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith fame. Bernie traveled in a few short years from a little village in Hungary, to two infamous death camps and then to Park Avenue. And, he never looked back when he arrived in New York, by his own admission he wanted to get as far away from the death camps as he possibly could. And so, his future took him to Cornell, Harvard Law, corporate America. He put his past behind him….Until the Holocaust Museum opened. My wife and I made him visit. He didn't really want to go back 50 years to all that pain and suffering. I called my friend Dick Schifter to ask that the Museum try perhaps to link Bernie when he arrived to some piece of his past. And they did. They showed him his name and that of his father, mother, and brother on the Nazi transport list from Budapest to Auschwitz. And Bernie recalled later that it hit him then when he saw his name on that Nazi list in the Holocaust Museum -- he was a survivor. He could not deny it and could not forget. And it literally changed his life. He decided that day that it was time to remember and to let those awful experiences back into his life. And, Bernie, now still young at 74, has written a book about his captivity in the death camps and spends most of his time talking to young kids about the Holocaust.

Jack Kowal and Bernie Rosner -- two survivors. Two men who changed my life. Two men who found a way to survive and live and remember all at the same time. Two men who are Holocaust survivors. Great Americans.

If we are to learn anything from Jack and Bernie and the millions of Jews like them, it is that we must remember. And we in public service have a special obligation to learn what went wrong and to resolve that it can never happen again. The Holocaust and Auschwitz are vivid and sobering reminders of the continuing threat to humanity posed by hatred, bigotry, racism, and prejudice. Looking to the future, this day of commemoration challenges all of us to educate future generations about these tragic events while honoring those whose lives were brutally cut short by a racist ideology. It also celebrates those brave souls who faced unimaginable horrors and lived to tell of their experiences.

Our Congress not only established this annual day of Remembrance, but also created the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a permanent living memorial to those victims who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.

I can think of no more appropriate occasion than this to recognize the exemplary cooperative relationship between the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Department of State. This relationship is both broad and deep. As many of you are aware, we have a specially dedicated office, the Office of Holocaust Issues, headed by Ambassador Edward O'Donnell, who represents the State Department as a member of the Museum Council.

We share a common goal with you of promoting peace, tolerance and understanding. Together we face contemporary challenges such as hatred and bigotry that, if unchecked, can have unthinkable and tragic consequences. With the able assistance of the Museum, we have focused our efforts in these critical areas: 1) fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred and bigotry today, 2) ensuring that countries involved in the Holocaust face their history honestly, and educate their publics to ensure that such horrors are not forgotten -- and never repeated.

Fighting Anti-Semitism Today

Unfortunately, we see a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. We are working hard to counter it. Young Jews have been attacked for wearing a Kippa and the media in some countries included both subtle and not-so-subtle slurs directed against Jewish people or the State of Israel. These are inexcusable crimes. We cannot ignore them. We must persevere to eliminate pernicious attitudes against the Jewish people that are still present in various countries and communities around the world.

For our part, American ambassadors overseas are asked to speak out against anti-Semitism and to encourage local leaders to counter anti-Semitic physical attacks and other acts of hatred. Moreover, the State Department includes incidents of anti-Semitism in our annual Human Rights Reports as well as in the International Religious Freedom Report. We also prepared a stand-alone report to Congress on Global anti-Semitism in December 2004, drawing on reporting from embassies and NGOs. These reports highlight worrisome trends so they can be promptly and effectively addressed.

Together, the Holocaust Museum and the Department of State are partners to promote tolerance and counter anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance. Without question, education and awareness are central to our efforts.

Facing the History of the Holocaust

The State Department's Office of Holocaust Issues works closely with the Museum to get countries involved in the Holocaust to face their history honestly. Together, we've had some success. Let me give you a few examples:

1) Together, the Museum and the State Department -- with specific involvement by our ambassadors in Bosnia and Croatia -- ensured that the documents and artifacts from Jasenovac Concentration Camp were preserved at the museum, and now have been returned to Croatia to tell the true story of the Holocaust in that region.

2) Before assignment overseas, many of our Ambassadors and Foreign Service Officers visit the Museum and are briefed on relationships that the Museum has established with the host country. This is critically important for officers in countries where manifestations of anti-Semitism that require a prompt official response.

3) When developing programs for high-level foreign visitors, the State Department frequently recommends a visit to the Holocaust Museum , to promote these visitors' understanding of the Holocaust. To date, some 80 heads of state or government have toured the Museum along with literally hundreds of ministers and other senior officials. Just last month, Marietta Yannakou, the Minister of Education from Greece who I know from my time in Athens as ambassador, spent the better part of an afternoon at the Museum together with her large delegation. Such visits not only deepen knowledge of the Holocaust itself, but also sensitize visitors to the need to combat all-too-common intolerance today.

4) The State Department and our diplomatic posts abroad have supported the Museum's efforts to gain access to Holocaust-era archives. We are currently negotiating access to archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany -- the most important collection of Holocaust-era archives not yet available to researchers and survivors. Research in this archive is important so future generations can learn from past mistakes. Just last week, during a visit to the Holocaust Museum, Germany's Justice Minister Zypries pledged her government's commitment to opening the archives as quickly as possible. I know that both Sara Bloomfield and Paul Schapiro had key roles in working with Minister Zypries.

5) The State Department, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and U.S. NGOs are also cooperating superbly to send teachers from eleven countries to attend highly successful Holocaust education courses across the United States . These teachers return home with new insights into the challenges of teaching the Holocaust and provide guidance for their colleagues.

6) Finally, I would like to focus for a few moments on the extraordinary relationship between the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the State Department within the framework of “The Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research.” This informal international body -- which relies largely on volunteers -- with twenty-four member countries, is dedicated to ensuring that the memory of the Holocaust will remain in the foreground of the world's conscience. The projects, mainly targeted on Eastern and Central Europe , range from teacher training and the creation of educational web sites to the preservation of memorial sites and the publication or translation of scholarly books. The modestly funded projects have been an immense success. In this light, I'd like to acknowledge the indispensable work of four Museum staff members with us today -- Arthur Berger, Steven Feinberg, Paul Shapiro, and Michelle Gross, who together with their international counterparts, form the heart and soul of the Task Force.

Sixty years have passed since the Holocaust but it remains essential for us to remember and to educate future generations -- our future leaders -- about the atrocities that occurred. When Anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic and religious intolerance are not confronted, democracy cannot flourish. In partnership with the world community, we must redouble our efforts to foster respect, mutual understanding, and compassion for all.

The work of the Holocaust Museum is supremely important. Thus, on behalf of Secretary of State Rice and the entire Department of State, I would like to express my deep appreciation for the Museum's outstanding accomplishments and say that I look forward to a continued relationship of cooperation and friendship.

Released on April 28, 2006

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