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Bearing Witness

Robert B. Zoellick, Deputy Secretary of State
National Commemoration of the Days of Remembrance
U.S. Capitol
April 27, 2006

As Prepared for Delivery

Survivors, liberators, Members of Congress, Ambassador Ayalon and Excellencies, Fred Zeidman, Sara Bloomfield, ladies and gentlemen. I was deeply moved by your invitation to join this gathering. In many years of public service, I can think of no greater honor than to help remember those who perished in the Holocaust, salute those who survived, thank those who liberated, and renew our common commitment to human freedom and justice.

Exactly sixty-one years ago today, on April 27, 1945, the 103d U.S. Infantry Division rolled into Landsberg, Germany. Pierce Evans, a radioman from Florida, came across a buddy from another company who had seen two camps on the outskirts of town.

At the first camp, a number of French prisoners had been liberated, and the men of the Division had shared some food with them. But the second, a concentration camp for Jewish prisoners, could not be described in mere words. It had to be seen to be believed.

So Pierce's friend drove him and a few others to Lager #2. Half a century later, in a book he wrote to help his grandson understand the war, Mr. Evans said, "All of the horror story writers in their most morbid states of mind could not describe what I saw in just a few minutes. I had heard about concentration camps before, but was always suspicious about the accuracy of the stories. This time it was not hearsay. I saw it myself and will never forget it."

What is remarkable in reading the accounts of the liberators is how similar they are. The shock, the revulsion, and the inability to put into words what they saw. But one theme is consistent above all: the determination to bear witness to what they had seen.

Corporal Evans vowed never to forget the Nazi Holocaust. His Supreme Commander made the same promise.

In a letter to General George Marshall in April 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower recalled the overpowering scenes when he visited a camp near Gotha. He told Marshall he had visited "to be in 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."

Eisenhower ordered that German civilians be shown the evidence of the bestial things that had been done in their names, on their doorsteps.

Eisenhower's vow to bear witness to genocide is etched on a wall at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. That museum, and the ceremony we gather for this morning, ensure that we never forget.

So what does it mean to bear witness? Certainly it means to remember, as we today remember the singular horrors suffered by the Jews of Europe. A more precise definition states that to bear witness means to testify to an event. I think it means even more than that.

The Holocaust was uniquely evil. But bearing witness to that genocide should also mean recognizing the lessons of history.

After all, Landsberg -- a town that conjured horror stories in 1945 -- was the same town where Adolf Hitler had written Mein Kampf in a prison cell in 1924. Indeed, camp Lager #2 was the end of a road that had been carefully mapped out - with stark frankness - by Hitler some twenty-one years earlier.

I recently read Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler. Kershaw details frighteningly how the Nazis further manipulated irrational myths and fears into a perverted "logic" that demanded the systematic destruction of the Jewish people. Even the use of the term anti-Semitism was designed to give a false scientific cover to base brutality.

In Kershaw's words, "Most Jews in Imperial Germany could feel reasonably sanguine about the future, could regard anti-Semitism as a throwback to a more primitive era that was on its way out. But Jews in Germany underestimated the pernicious ways in which modern racial anti-Semitism differed from archaic forms of persecution of Jews, however vicious, in its uncompromising emphasis on biological distinctiveness, its links with assertive nationalism, and the ways it could be taken over and exploited in new types of political mass movements."

Jews made up only 8 tenths of 1 percent of the population of Germany. Nevertheless, Hitler was able to feed off pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe, as well as the despair of a nation that was reeling from a loss in war and a devastating economic depression.

The cautionary tale is that when national anxieties mix with widespread prejudice, the result can be a visceral hatred - masquerading as reason - that blames one group for the failure of an entire society. Evil breeds in such a swamp.

Our own country is not immune to dangerous attitudes. A report last year by the Anti-Defamation League noted an alarming increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.

Not long ago, I attended a conference in Europe, and many were commenting on the upheavals among the Palestinians.

I suggested to the audience that none of us should take Israel's position for granted: It also faces upheavals. We needed to reflect on how Israelis might view events, too.

In Israel, the election of Hamas looks like a return to 1947, when the country's neighbors refused to accept Israel's very existence.

In its response to the recent terrorist Passover bombing in Israel, Hamas continued to justify terrorism and feed hatred. Instead of facing up to the challenges of creating a democratic Palestinian state, Hamas has retreated to blaming the Palestinians' problems on the Jews.

Equally troubling, today the modern Jewish democracy that emerged from the Holocaust faces a new threat from an Iranian leader who denies the very existence of that Holocaust… who threatens to wipe Israel and its people off the map… and who seeks nuclear weapons.

This leader's statements are plain. And the threat he poses is not just to Israel, but to the world.

That is why the United States is working to build a global coalition to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

In Iran and with Hamas, we are seeing scenes from the rise of political Islam. Theirs is a violent strain of radicalism that seeks to pervert a religion into an ideology of hatred and racism.

There is a struggle for the soul of Islam. While some use religion to justify murder, other Muslims honor Islam's noble past, welcoming diverse thought and living peacefully with people of other faiths, including Judaism. Courageous Islamic reformers have embraced economic reform, free speech, the rights of women, peace, and democracy.

It is not for Americans to determine the outcome of this struggle, though our interest in the result is immense. From the Mahgreb to Southeast Asia, only fellow Muslims can lead their brothers and sisters of faith to a better Islamic future.

However, with policies that encourage development, open markets, tolerance, individual freedom, and democracy, the United States can bolster the chances of those who believe in a peaceful and hopeful Islam.

Our recognition of genocide must also apply to other lands and peoples.

Last year, I traveled to the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda. As I lay flowers at an open grave, I was chilled by the specters of the site. More than 250,000 victims of the Rwandan genocide are buried there, on a bright hillside overlooking a reviving city. In 1994, more than 800,000 Rwandans were murdered in only a hundred days.

Twelve years later, Rwandan peacekeepers in Sudan show us what it means to bear witness to genocide. On my four trips to Darfur last year, I was privileged to meet with many of the brave African Union soldiers who are struggling to offer peace and security to some 2 million Sudanese who have been herded or retreated into camps.

The Rwandans are among the best of the AU peacekeepers. They are serious men and women. They know what genocide is, and they are determined to do everything they can to stop it.

This weekend, thousands of people will come to Washington - from synagogues, churches, college campuses, and communities across the country - to give voice to their concern about Darfur.

I look forward to meeting with some of them. And I will discuss with them what I think it means to bear witness to genocide.

  • Bearing witness means we remember… but memory is not enough. 
  • Bearing witness means giving testimony… but statements are not enough. 
  • Bearing witness means learning from history… but knowledge is not enough. 
  • Bearing witness must also mean acting against evil.

President Bush has been pressing the world to help the people of Darfur.

Our first imperative is to continue providing humanitarian relief to those who are suffering. To date in 2006, the United States has provided more than 86% of the food distributed by the World Food Program in Sudan. On my visits, I have had the privilege to meet with the brave humanitarian relief workers - mostly from non-governmental organizations - who risk their lives to feed the hungry and care for the sick and frightened.

Second, we need to improve security on the ground for the people of Darfur. This means transitioning from the current African Union peacekeeping force to a larger, more robust United Nations peacekeeping mission with a strong mandate, and with support from NATO. There is resistance to overcome, but it must be done. There is no time to waste.

Finally, although humanitarian relief and peacekeeping forces are vital, they are only holding actions: We need a peace agreement to settle the Darfur conflict. The United States is working side-by-side with the African Union and the European Union to energize the Abuja peace talks. A peace accord for Darfur is within reach. But such an agreement would only be the foundation of the next phase - to provide assistance to allow people to return home, reconcile tribes, and offer a path for development, opportunity, and hope.

Another quote on the wall of the Holocaust Museum - this one from the Book of Isaiah -reminds us that we are all witnesses.

  • As witnesses, we are here to remember. 
  • As witnesses, we must be ever vigilant. 
  • But above all, witnesses cannot be bystanders.

And so today we renew our resolve to take action, so that we can fulfill the promise of the survivors and the liberators: "Never Again."

Thank you.


Released on April 27, 2006

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