MS. CHERRIE DANIELS: Thank you for joining us for today’s program. My name is Cherrie Daniels. I’m the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the Department of State. I’m pleased to welcome you to today’s State Department Yom HaShoah Commemoration, which is being cohosted by my office and the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, together with the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
Since the position of Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues was started in 1999 by then-Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stu Eisenstadt, and current Expert Advisor to the State Department Stu Eisenstadt, we’ve continued to work tirelessly to promote and pursue a measure of justice for Holocaust victim survivors and their heirs. We’ve also worked to promote historically accurate Holocaust education, remembrance, and research throughout all these years, and I’m pleased to note that Republican and Democratic administrations alike throughout all of this time have been extremely supportive. The Biden administration in its first months has already shown its clear support.
I think it’s fitting that for today’s commemoration, we’ve chosen the theme protecting the history of the Holocaust, combating Holocaust distortion and denial. At a time when the facts and the history of World War II and the Holocaust are so frequently politicized and relativized around the world and when lies spread so quickly through social media and other platforms, a focus on combating distortion and denial seems particularly timely to me. The United States has been and remains vigilant in calling out individuals and governments who cynically and deliberately distort and manipulate the facts of the Holocaust to further their own political agendas. We’re not immune to those trends.
The historical facts about the Holocaust need to be protected, honored, and conveyed to future generations. And while we’re on the subject of protecting the facts, I would like to recognize 22 representatives of Holocaust museums, archives, and memorial sites located in Europe who are among the audience members today as part of a new International Visitor Leadership Program that has been organized by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Like many of you, these professionals are, in many ways, the guardians and keepers of the facts of the Holocaust. Thank you for joining us, and good luck as you embark on your month-long program to virtually meet your counterparts across the United States.
As we will hear today, none of us, whether diplomats, activists, educators, and global citizens, can turn a blind eye to the incalculable human suffering and the destruction that is unleashed when people of goodwill fail to act. In other words, silence is complicity, as President Biden has said. We gather this week and throughout the days of remembrance to mourn the six million Jews and millions of others– innocent people, men, women, and children– who were systematically murdered by the Nazis, their allies, accomplices, and collaborators.
And yet, three-quarters of a century after the end of the Holocaust, we continue to witness violence against individuals and groups because of their ethnic, racial, religious, or political backgrounds, or their perceived disability, gender orientation, or gender identity. We and our partners, friends, and allies in the international community must act more swiftly when we see the signs and the warning signs of such atrocities. We must be vigilant and vocal in identifying, and then calling out and confronting anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry.
Today, we will be hearing from an incredible list of speakers. We will start with Irene Weiss, who is a survivor of Auschwitz Birkenau and other camps. And she and other Holocaust survivors who are still with us are the ultimate witness to the horrors of the Holocaust.
We will also be joined, from his home studio in Jerusalem, by Professor Yehuda Bauer, who’s the honorary chair of the 34-nation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, one of the world’s premier Holocaust historians. We’re delighted to have with us today Ambassador Michaela Küchler, Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organizations at the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic of Germany, who just last week wrapped up her incredible tenure as President of the IHRA. She’ll be followed by Dr. Robert Williams, Chair of IHRA’s Expert Committee on Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial, and he’s also Deputy Director of International Affairs at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Senators Jacky Rosen of Nevada and James Lankford of Oklahoma will deliver a powerful joint message as co-founders and co-chairs of the Senate Bipartisan Task Force on Combating Anti-Semitism. We’ll also then hear short recorded remarks from Israel’s ambassador to the United States, who’s dual-hatted as Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Gilad Erdan. And finally, you will want to stay until the closing minutes of the program, when the Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich will recite traditional prayers in memory of those murdered during the Holocaust, and he will do this live from his synagogue in Warsaw.
One housekeeping note, a recording of today’s event will be posted on the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues page on State.gov after the program, hopefully within a couple of days, and will be sent around to those who registered. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce Acting Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Ambassador Philip Reeker. He is a passionate advocate for the full set of issues that we’re discussing today, and we are really honored to have him kick off today’s program. Ambassador Reeker.
AMBASSADOR PHILIP REEKER: Thank you very much, Cherrie. And let me begin really by giving you my heartfelt thanks to you and your whole team for the terrific work you do as our Special Envoy. The team has been great, particularly during this difficult period, the COVID pandemic, in finding ways for us to continue this important outreach.
President Biden issued a proclamation on Sunday, April 4th, and he said, “…we must do more to pursue justice and dignity for survivors and for their heirs. We have a moral imperative to recognize the pain survivors carry, support them, and ensure that their memories and experiences of the Holocaust are neither denied or distorted, and that the lessons for all humanity are never forgotten.” As survivors age, the urgency for justice grows, as do their needs, and the act of remembering as we do today takes on meaning only when paired with real concrete steps to deliver justice.
So to that end, I look forward, with the Bureau of European Affairs, to working with you and with our partner countries of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. Additionally, the United States is participating with countries that endorse the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets, not only emphasizing the importance of providing restitution but also committed to repudiating denial of the Holocaust. I’d also like to express my appreciation to the distinguished panel of speakers who will address us today.
As one whose family lost people in the Holocaust and with dear cousins who survived, I’m honored and humbled to share this digital platform with you. And most importantly, I want to thank all of you, the 300-plus participants who have logged on to join the State Department in remembering the profound inhumanity and enduring tragedy of the Holocaust as well as the bravery of the Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
This is an annual event, and we’re marking it virtually this year, but we like to gather State Department employees, our friends, partners, and family, friends from civil society as well as our counterparts from the diplomatic corps here in Washington DC to remember and recommit ourselves to never again allow another tragedy like the Holocaust. Your attendance reminds me that although there continue to be some who deny or distort the Holocaust, there are countless more who are resolved to preserve and uphold the truth. The horrific historical truth is that the Nazi regime murdered six million Jews, including one and a half million children and millions of other individuals. Motivated by a twisted ideology of hatred, their objective was to permanently eliminate Jews and all traces of Jewish life– in a word, genocide.
These days of remembrance allow us to pause, to reflect on this dark chapter of history and the hard lessons the Holocaust teaches us. I think one of the disappointments of 2020 and the COVID pandemic and all the restrictions that brought was that we were unable to appropriately commemorate the events 75 years before that brought an end to World War II. At the same time, while we could not celebrate the end of a war and commemorate, others who had plans to offer revisionist history were denied some of those opportunities as well.
And in a society where often we don’t teach enough history and we don’t concentrate enough on civics and civic duty, I think it’s important that the theme of today’s commemoration is protecting the history of the Holocaust and combating Holocaust distortion and denial. So as Cherrie mentioned, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his very first day in office spoke in observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. And I’d like to quote him.
He said, “It’s no accident that people who seek to create instability and undermine democracy often try to cast doubt on the Holocaust. They want to blur the line between truth and lies. They want to use disinformation and conspiracy theories to gain power, and they want to provoke hate against Jewish people and more broadly against refugees, asylum seekers, people of color, LGBTQI people, anyone who has been targeted for violence and dehumanized because of who they are.”
Secretary Blinken then vowed always “…to remember that a nation’s power isn’t measured only by the size of its military or economy but by the moral choices it makes.” I’m extremely proud to serve under a Secretary who cares so deeply about the human rights and dignity of all, and I’m also incredibly proud and pleased to introduce the next speaker, whom I’m grateful to be able to call a friend. Irene Weiss is more than a survivor. She is truly an inspiration.
Her volunteer work at the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum and the way she shares her stories have helped personalize the experience of the Holocaust for many. So with no further ado, I’d like to pass things over to Irene. Thank you.
MS. IRENE WEISS: Thank you for inviting me to speak today. When talking about the Holocaust 75 years later, my memories are still vivid. When I reflect upon my experience, I find that I divide it into two areas.
The first, I am 13 years old and have arrived at Auschwitz, and the sudden separation of my family on the platform at Birkenau. The second reflection is in the present. At 90 years old, with the perspective of time, I am preoccupied with looking back, to try to understand what happened there.
What diabolical place was this? And how do I regain trust in human beings? Auschwitz was an efficiently planned death camp, deeply, cleverly designed to rely on our normal expectations upon arrival, that we have arrived at a work camp. It started for us in 1944 when Germany already was losing the war, but they were determined to finish the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
They turned their attention to the half-million Jews in Hungary. At the time, I was living in a small town in Hungary with my parents, five siblings, and a large extended family. In the spring of 1944, Hungarian officials announced that the Jews of my town had 24 hours to leave their homes with one suitcase each and assemble at the town hall.
A delegation made up of the mayor, police chief, and my school principal arrived at the door, demanding that we hand over our money and valuables. Along with the other Jews of our town, we were taken to an abandoned brick factory some miles away. There we joined hundreds of Jewish families from neighboring towns.
We were kept there for about a month, sleeping on the floor of the factory. In the middle of May, a freight train arrived on the tracks alongside the factory. We were ordered to get into the train.
No one told us our destination. My family struggled to stay together. We managed to get into the same cattle car along with about 80 to 100 people.
A guard slammed the door shut and bolted it from the outside. Instantly, it was dark. The only air and light came from a small window in the upper corner of the car.
Hours later, the train began to move. There was a bucket for the toilet in the middle of the train. Hours passed, two days and a night. The bucket filled up.
Peering out the window, my father confirmed our worst fears. The train was crossing into Poland. We had heard rumors of mass shootings of Jewish families in the forests of Nazi-occupied Poland. We had never heard of Auschwitz.
Finally, the train stopped. There are barracks here, my father said. This must be a work camp.
We were relieved. We were not going to be facing a firing squad. The doors opened, and air and light rushed in. There were dogs, guards with guns, and prisoners in striped uniforms.
Leave everything behind, they shouted. My mother quickly unpacked extra clothes and told us to put on more layers. My head was covered with a kerchief, and I put on an oversized winter coat.
On the platform, my family reached for one another, urgently trying to stay together in the crush of people, noise, and confusion. SS guards with moved a huge crowd forward off the platform.
An SS guard shouted, men to one side, women and children to the other. In an instant, my father and 16-year-old brother were lined up into a huge column of men off to one side. I never saw them again.
My mother, sisters, younger brothers, and I were in another large column of women and children. Smoke billowed from a chimney in the distance. The column edged forward.
When we reached the front of the line, a dozen or more armed Nazi guards blocked the way. One held a small stick. He motioned my older sister, Serena, who was 17, to the side, and she moved down the road in that direction. The next moment, he motioned my mother and two little brothers to the other side, and they also disappeared from view.
Only my younger little sister Edith remained. The stick came down between us. Edith was sent in the direction that my mother went.
The guard looked at me and hesitated for an instant. Although I was only 13 and could have been selected with the children, my kerchief and coat may have made me look older. He motioned me to go in the direction that Serena and other young adults went and turned his attention to the women and children lined up behind me.
I tried to see if my younger sister had caught up with my mother. It was not possible for me to see what happened to her in the fast-moving crowd. Our family had tried so hard to stay together. We were now completely torn apart, and the trauma of the separation lingers with me to this day.
Serena and I were herded into a bath house where we were shaved, disinfected, and handed prison clothes. We were moved to a barrack with about 200 other women. We still didn’t know where we were.
We asked other prisoners, when will we see our families? A woman pointed to a chimney and said, do you see the smoke? There is your family. I thought, why would anyone say such things to us?
By sheer luck, we discovered my mother’s two sisters, who were in their 20s, in a nearby barrack. Their loving devotion helped to protect and shield us in this terrifying place. In the following days, we were tattooed and sent to work near crematorium number four at the storage and processing area that the prisoners called Canada.
There we sorted through mountains of clothing, shoes, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, baby carriages, and every kind of household item brought by the people arriving on the transports and also belonging to the people from the gas chambers. We worked outside day and night to bring the belongings into the barracks out of the weather, but the trucks kept bringing more and more from the platform and the crematorium, and the piles never became smaller. We sorted the belongings to get them ready to be sent to Germany for the use of the German population.
Because we worked and lived next to the gas chambers and crematorium, we had first-hand knowledge of what had happened to our families. Day and night, columns of old men and women and young mothers with children passed by our barrack. We watched them enter the gate that led to the gas chambers. Sometimes they called out questions. By that time, nothing could save them.
The sounds were magnified when I worked outside at night. First, I would hear the whistle of the train, the hissing of a steam engine arriving at the platform. The people coming from the train at night saw the smoke and flames belching from the chimneys and the burning of bodies in open pits. It looked to them like they were being herded into open flames.
I plugged my ears with my fingers to lock out their shrieks and their prayers. Then there was silence. In the distance, I could hear the whistle of another train arriving.
In January 1945, as the Russian front approached, we were forced on a death march along with thousands of other prisoners, hundreds of miles from Auschwitz, deeper into Germany. Anyone who fell from exhaustion or sat down to rest was shot. By the time we reached other camps in Germany, we were sick and emaciated.
One of my aunts came down with typhus and was selected to be killed. My other aunt was also very ill. Soon after that, my sister Serena was selected to be killed. When I realized that we were about to be separated, I said, I am her sister. I was told, you can go, too.
We were put in a room with other selected women, awaiting a truck that would take us to be killed. Perhaps because of the approaching Russian front and the resulting chaos, the truck never came that day. Soon after, the guards fled, and the remaining survivors drifted out of the camp.
From my immediate family of eight, only Serena and I survived. We never learned what happened to my 16-year-old brother. My father, who was 47 years old, was forced to work in the crematorium, pulling bodies from the gas chamber. He was shot not long after we arrived.
All 11 of my young cousins perished along with their parents. When I saw children after the war, I stopped and stared. I had not seen children in almost a year and a half. Children were condemned to death in the world I had just come from.
It is still painful to talk about what happened, but it is unthinkable that it should not be told. And with the years passing, I find it more urgent to tell. When I speak about the Holocaust, I am again a 13-year-old girl who was certain that no one knew that such a place existed, where thousands of Jewish families were delivered day and night for the purpose to be killed.
The Nazis considered us subhuman and disassociated themselves from our common humanity. Among the many laws enacted by the Nazis against the Jews, one of the laws was to prevent Jews from contaminating their superior Nazi race. It is difficult to explain the terror one feels of being treated as a subhuman by a fellow human being. It is terrifying.
As a 13-year-old, I was also certain that if we survived and told what happened here, it would put an end to anti-Semitism. But as we know, that did not happen. Not only is anti-Semitism alive, but there are those who deny and distort the reality of the Holocaust.
The denial and distortion of the Holocaust causes survivors anxiety and pain and the fear that it can happen even in this country. Your work is crucial to ensure that the truth is known about this tragic period in our history and that the rule of law and protection of human rights is upheld in this country and worldwide. Thank you for listening to my story.
MS. DANIELS: Thank you so much, Irene. I appreciate that you were able to share those reflections with us and to bring meaning and depth to this commemoration. And of course, you were done a wonderful justice by your daughter, Lesley Weiss, who serves on the U.S. Delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and we thank her for that service.
I’d like to now introduce recorded remarks from Dr. Yehuda Bauer. He’s the honorary chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Professor Emeritus of History and Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he’s also an academic advisor to Yad Vashem. Born in 1926, today actually marks his 95th birthday, and I want to give him a special shout-out and a claim, not for the many honors that he’s earned, but also for those, but because he has served as a voice of conscience over all of these decades.
He’s been the siren call that has warned nations, including ours and others, to avoid the temptation of steering into the rocky shoals and sinking the ship of state over anti-Semitism, hatred, and other bigotry and discrimination. And with that, over to Dr. Bauer.
DR. YEHUDA BAUER: For American diplomats anywhere in the world, the memory of the Holocaust, dealing with the Holocaust is one of many issues, obviously. Why is it important? It’s important because it is the most extreme form of a general human illness, the illness of mutual annihilation, of violent nationalist ideologies, of racist ideologies. And because it is the most extreme case to date of that, we are dealing not with the past.
You see, one of the problems explaining what we are dealing with is the notion that the Holocaust is past. Not a very long past– only 70, 80 years, but it’s past. That’s a mistake.
The Holocaust is not a past. The Holocaust is a present. Why? Because it’s become a political issue as well as an ideological and educational and moral issue. It’s become a political issue.
To give you an example, there’s a violent struggle over the past between Poland and Russia. The Russians– as a matter of fact, by their President, in an article that he published in June of last year in an American magazine signed by him– accused the Poles of practically causing World War II by making agreements with the Germans before 1939. And he accused them of anti-Semitism because of statements that were made by Polish politicians and Polish diplomats at the time.
And then, of course, the present Polish government retorted, answered, and they said, no, the agreement between Stalin and Hitler in August 1939 paved the way for World War II. You are responsible. And you hid the annihilation of Russian Jews in your historical work after the war.
And then, you killed Poles. You killed Jews. And this of course is a central issue, because the struggle over the past is not a struggle over the past. It’s a struggle over the present of, in this case, two powers– one, a very major power, Russia, one, a minor power, if you like, but a very important one in Europe, over the interpretation of the present.
And so you have a crucial issue there of defining what the Holocaust was and where anti-Semitism came from. And there you have two issues, denial and distortion. They are not the same.
Denial means that you deny facts, which is becoming increasingly difficult, especially in Europe, but also elsewhere. There are today at least four universities in China that teach the Holocaust. It’s spreading. It’s being taught in high schools in India. We get requests from various places all over the world.
Why? Because it concerns people today, because what happened during the Holocaust could happen again. Because it was done not by God and not by Satan but by human beings, and what human beings do can be repeated, never in the same way, by other human beings. And so the danger of denial is still there.
But distortion is different, you know. Distortion means that you don’t deny the Holocaust. Oh, no, it happened, sure, and it was terrible.
But we oppose the Hungarians, others– not only governments, but organizations, NGOs, populations. We did not do it– the Germans, only the Germans. Now, of course it came from Germany. The ideology, the planning, the mass murder machine came from Nazi Germany.
But without the help of smaller or larger groups of people, not only in the countries that were occupied by Germany or collaborated with Nazi Germany, but also in other places– without their help, they could not have done it. And so the problem is, what is our– whoever the we is– what is our past? How can we counter the argument that some of us– small numbers, large numbers, parts of the population, large parts of the population– were part of this?
Now, of course, we didn’t do it, so we create museums for the Holocaust. We erect statues. We make speeches, the most wonderful, emphatic speeches, terrific speeches.
We love dead Jews. We have problems sometimes with live Jews. And so we create something of a usable past.
What do I mean when I say usable past? A past that will fortify our nationalism, our radical religious views, our feeling of superiority. We are the best, you know? Nobody can measure up to us.
And so when you don’t have a past like that– because it’s complicated– you invent it. It’s never totally invention. It’s always partially true.
In the case of Poland, there were many thousands of Polish people who were heroes, tremendously heroic people, who rescued Jews, many thousands of them, many more than the over 7,000 that were recognized by Yad Vashem as righteous people. But out of the 21 million ethnic Poles who lived at the time, these were tiny proportions. The argument is, we, in this case– but it’s only one case, Poland– the argument is, we never collaborated with the Germans. We never created a regime that collaborated with them.
And that’s quite true. It’s perfectly true. No such regime was founded, but the reason for it was not the unwillingness of certain Polish people at the time to collaborate with the Germans, but a decision of the Germans never to collaborate with the Poles, never to establish any kind of Polish autonomy or independence or anything like that– not only in Poland, but in Lithuania, in Latvia, and the Ukraine, and elsewhere where the Germans– Nazi Germany– occupied the areas.
And yes, you know there are two sides of it. Of course. But for that you need freedom. And you as diplomats, as part of the State Department, you have to argue, and you do, for freedom of expression, freedom of research, freedom of publication. This is not a matter to be hauled– that a historian is hauled before a court.
A court of justice does not decide what happened in the past. It’s a matter of historical argument. You can argue for, you could argue against.
There’s got to be freedom, and freedom of the judiciary, not to be controlled by any political party or any political– any government. But freedom all over the place, that is really the task that we have to take upon ourselves when we deal with the Holocaust on a day that is devoted to Holocaust memory. Thank you.
MS. DANIELS: Thank you so much, Dr. Bauer, for sharing those words with us as we work together to find coalitions of unity among allies and among our partners, many of whom are on with us today, to fight historic Holocaust distortion and denial, and work to avoid such atrocities from ever happening again. So thank you.
I’d like now to introduce Ambassador Michaela Küchler. She’s the Special Representative for Relations with Jewish Organizations for Holocaust Remembrance, Anti-Semitism, and International Affairs relating to the Sinti and Roma in Germany’s Federal Foreign office. She’s also the outgoing President of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Over the past year, I’ve had the good fortune to work with her and her team in the Foreign Ministry as they worked so tirelessly and so successfully in their chairmanship role. In very difficult circumstances made harder by adverse pandemic conditions, Ambassador Küchler succeeded in negotiating a groundbreaking and first-time working definition of anti-Roma discrimination and developing brand new guidelines for policymakers on recognizing and countering Holocaust distortion, which were just launched in January of this year, and they form the central theme for today’s events. Ambassador Küchler, thank you for being with us.
AMBASSADOR MICHAELA KÜCHLER: Dear Ambassador Daniels, dear Ambassador Reeker, I’d like to thank you both and the Department of State for your kind invitation. I feel very honored to speak to such a distinguished public on such an important day on an important topic that is Holocaust distortion.
On 6th April, 1944, the Gestapo raided the Jewish orphanage in the French town of Izieu. 44 children and their seven educators were taken to Drancy, near Paris, and later deported to Auschwitz. Only one person survived.
44 out of six million Jews murdered by the Germans. Today, we remember and honor these 44 children and all the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. We remember those who resisted the Nazis and those who protected or rescued the persecuted fellow human beings.
Remembrance ties us fundamentally to the facts, to what took place, and the people it affected. That is why remembrance plays a critical role in fighting the persistent forces of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and distortions. Allowing distortion invites the erosion of our understanding of the Holocaust and its significance.
It helps sustain an environment in which Holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, conspiracy myths, and dangerous forms of nationalism can thrive. Distortion fans the flames of hate, threatens democracy, and allows anti-Semitism to inch towards the mainstream. The international Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the IHRA, has become increasingly concerned over how history has been undermined, how the Holocaust and its legacy have been misused, threatening social, political, and cultural values and norms in the process.
Professor Yehuda Bauer just explained to us how this works. And it has made– and the IHRA has made countering this threat a priority. In 2013, we adopted a working definition of Holocaust denial and distortion, a practical tool to help in identifying this phenomenon.
Last year, the IHRA adopted a statement in which our 34 member countries condemned all attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of persons complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma. To identify and promote strategies for countering distortion, the German presidency of the IHRA established the Global Task Force Against Holocaust Distortion, an initiative that will continue under the current Greek presidency. As with anti-Semitism, it is essential that we not only raise awareness of the dangers of distortion, but also that we are able to better identify and respond to it when it appears.
So what can we do to counter distortion? The global task force has published recommendations for policy and decision makers on recognizing and countering Holocaust distortion. You will find the source in the chat.
Four areas require urgent attention– memorials and museums, monitoring efforts, training, and social media. Let me start with memorials and museums. They need more support and resources to address Holocaust distortion, as they are often on the front lines. Especially in light of the constraints of the pandemic, Holocaust related institutions need sustainable support for developing suitable educational approaches and new exhibitions, including and especially digital ones.
Secondly, more efforts need to be put into monitoring this issue as well as more data and research is desperately needed. Thirdly, greater training and awareness-raising at the local, regional, and national levels is required, so that various professional groups have the capacity and the skills to effectively address it. This includes policy and decision makers like ministry officials like ourselves, local authorities, media professionals, lawmakers and the judiciary, and police as well as staff of social media and tech companies.
And finally, knowing the facts is important, but it is not enough. The facts must be respected. They must be protected from the threat of Holocaust distortion. #ProtectTheFacts, a joint campaign of the IHRA, the European Commission, the United Nations, and UNESCO, is helping raise awareness of Holocaust distortion and the dangers it poses to democracy and to open society.
I’m grateful to note that you and your institutions already take part in this global campaign and help build a strong and broad coalition against distortion. I can only encourage you to keep on doing so. Countering distortion requires all of us.
I was heartened to see our efforts already receive support from the highest political levels, including Chancellor Angela Merkel and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. This level of support is essential. I am truly impressed by the measures taken against Holocaust distortion and anti-Semitism by the new administration.
I look forward to the United States’ continued engagement in this global effort to counter these phenomena, and I stand ready to cooperate. On Yom HaShoah, we are reminded to strive for a world that protects the facts of the Holocaust, for a world that remembers the Holocaust, for a world without genocide.
MS. DANIELS: Thank you so much, Ambassador Küchler. It’s really a pleasure to get to work with you, and I know your commitment continues as you remain a member of the troika of leadership of the IHRA, so thank you for those words and those reflections.
I’d like now to introduce a good friend, Dr. Robert Williams, who’s the deputy director for International Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington and for the last several years has been the chair of the Committee on Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Denial. He was also an advisor on the steering committee of IHRA’s Global Task Force for Holocaust Distortion about which Ambassador Küchler spoke, and regularly advises international organizations and governments, including mine, on issues related to Holocaust history. Thank you, Dr. Williams, and over to you.
DR. ROBERT WILLIAMS: Thank you. So I know that for some of us, history is just a tale from the past, something from long ago, far away, without much impact on our day-to-day lives, but not so the Holocaust. Yes, several generations have passed since the Holocaust ended in 1945, but this genocide– the murders perpetrated, the tears shed– it shapes our existence. And beyond its obvious presence in our classrooms, our museums, and our popular culture, the Holocaust plays an indelible role in our international politics and in our shared beliefs.
From the genocide and refugee conventions of the UN, to the treatment of civilians and military conflict, to the fight against extremism and anti-Semitism, the shadow of the Holocaust looms large. And why is this? Because the Holocaust happened in a world not too dissimilar from our own.
The perpetrators were like us, members of an ordered modern society. The Holocaust was also the product of Democratic upheavals, when international norms and institutions were called into question and when individual nations were more interested in cloaking themselves in communal narcissism instead of tackling the challenges of the day. I wish we could say we learned our lesson, but it’s clear that more work needs to be done. Even the truth of the Holocaust is under assault.
And if we allow the facts of the Holocaust to be called into question through denial or distortion, what does this mean for the various social, cultural, and political developments that have followed in its wake? Holocaust denial and distortion are not new. They began with the Nazis who had various turns of phrase and formal programs, all designed to obscure and destroy evidence of their crimes.
During the Cold War, those of us on the Western side of the Iron Curtain as well as those who were on the East largely avoided discussing the specific nature of the Nazi-led genocide of the Jews. And this conspiracy of silence became a breeding ground for those who would in time call into question the very fact of the Holocaust, and that’s what happened. As the world became more aware of the experiences of victims and survivors, extremists, particularly some based in North America and parts of Western Europe, began to openly deny this genocide, often in an attempt to recruit people to their cause.
At its core, Holocaust denial seeks to convince other people that the Holocaust or related atrocities never happened. It has two goals, to legitimize Nazism and to normalize anti-Semitism. Holocaust denial is a problem. There’s no diminishing this. But it’s also unsophisticated, and there’s plenty of available evidence we can use if we wish to refute it.
Only a few hundred feet from the Washington Monument, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, there are tens of millions of pages of archival material detailing these crimes. The related phenomenon of Holocaust distortion is trickier. No country or culture seems to be immune from it.
You see, distortion excuses, minimizes, or otherwise misrepresents the Holocaust and its contemporary relevance, but it doesn’t say that the genocide never took place. Sometimes distortion’s overt, but sometimes it’s coated and not obvious at first blush. It’s also difficult to identify the motives behind it. Is somebody distorting for cynical and hateful reasons, or just because they don’t know the facts?
At the end of the day, it matters not, because allowing for or excusing distortion erodes our understanding of the Holocaust. It’s a moral insult to the memories of the victims and the survivors. And on a practical level, it can act as a gateway drug, if you will, to conspiracy theory and more dangerous forms of anti-Semitism.
Among the myriad forms out there, blaming Jews for the Holocaust is a particularly common and troublesome form of distortion. In many former communist countries, you might encounter an offhand reference from time to time to a myth of Judeo-Communism, essentially a coated suggestion that the Holocaust was just an anti-communist action and somewhat justifiable. Throughout the world, there are people who suggest that there’s something in the Jewish character, or other, anti-Semitic lies that led to the Holocaust.
And we see this in parts of the Middle East, of course, but it’s also common among far-right circles in Europe, North America, Australia, and elsewhere. More and more today, we’re also seeing some political leaders make irresponsible reference to the fact that a very few number of Jews were pressed into service as police in the ghettos of Eastern Europe. This is an attempt to say in a terrible form of bait and switch that because a handful of victims could be implicated, all others are absolved of their responsibility.
You see, sadly, state-sponsored distortion of the Holocaust has become common. Sometimes it’s innocuous, like when a museum presents imagery from the Holocaust without any historical context. But sometimes it’s intentional.
Consider, among many cases, some of the rhetoric that’s emanated from the Russian Federation or its proxies since at least 2014. Claims that other countries in Eastern Europe are either intrinsically anti-Semitic or run by unreconstructed fascists are not only factually wrong. They force some of these nations to conclude that the only way to respond is by creating new and equally problematic narratives about the past.
To put this simply, what we’re seeing now is a war between official memories of the Holocaust in the lands where it occurred. This development only takes us further from an honest and healthy engagement with the subject, and these memory wars play out in surprising ways. Take, for example, the growing number of attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of people or organizations who were complicit in Holocaust-related crimes.
This isn’t something we only see in perpetrator countries. It’s also seen in lands that were occupied by the Nazis, in countries that were neutral during World War II, and in the countries that were part of the alliance with the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France. What I’m saying is, this is a shared problem. And because of that, it requires a common solution.
At times, these so-called rehabilitated have benefited by the decision of courts to overturn long past judicial sentences. Over just the past few years, there have been several legal attempts to exonerate collaborators and perpetrators. Two of these cases failed– one in Romania and one in Serbia. But there was a successful effort in Slovenia where the high court annulled an almost 74-year death sentence of a long-deceased but known collaborator.
Of course, there are differences between judicial truth and historical truth. History is a much sharper and better-informed critic after all. But cases like these only open the door to turning criminals into heroes.
And sometimes, elected officials intervene before the court can even get involved. This has happened in countries like Ukraine, Lithuania, and elsewhere, where parliamentarians have honored some putative heroes for anti-communist activities despite the fact that a few of these individuals also collaborated with the Nazis. And others still escape justice entirely, going on to acclaim after the war.
To this list, we need to add those Nazi scientists, at least some of them, who were brought to the United States to work on our rocket program. As I said, this is a shared problem. Nobody walks away clean.
Finally, today, we’re growing more familiar with another type of distortion– the misuse of Holocaust images for all manner of unrelated causes. Just think for a moment of the number of anti-vaxxers, QAnon supporters, and other conspiracy theorists from around the world who are comparing national pandemic responses to the wearing of the yellow star. So what do we do?
Well, we can’t stay silent. As Elie Wiesel said, we must take sides, because silence only encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. As Ambassador Küchler referenced just a moment ago, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance under the German presidency has released guidelines that can assist policymakers in understanding these challenges.
These recommendations also provide ways forward at both the governmental and civil society levels. Additional resources at hand include the education and reference materials created by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. These not only provide a double-check for when we encounter mistruths, but they can help inoculate audiences against distortion before it becomes an even bigger problem.
As for new media, there’s been a lot of deserved attention paid to the responsibility of companies to tackle online hate. But what’s our responsibility? We need to figure out better ways to communicate, because to be frank, those who so hate are much better at reaching vulnerable groups than are we.
And as you know, political responsibility is key. Governments must speak out against misuse of the subject and not allow the Holocaust to become a cudgel that one political opponent uses against another. The good news is, things can change.
The State Department and other U.S. agencies have the will and the ability to turn the tide. We’ve done so before. At the end of the Second World War, we worked with our allies to turn formerly fascist countries around to democracy, to educate their citizens and to encourage the development of new political cultures that respect pluralism.
Today’s challenges might be different. They might even be more complex. But we can still act for good.
We have to do so now, however, before it’s too late, and before the last of the survivors leave us. If we act, we can help these survivors leave behind a better world instead of one uncertain about what the future might bring. Thank you.
MS. DANIELS: Thank you, Rob. Fully agree, and thank you for sharing that research and those tips with us. And that is an excellent resource and one that we make available to the entire State Department community on our website.
I’d now like to introduce recorded remarks that were recorded jointly about a week ago or so from Senator Jacky Rosen, a Democrat of Nevada, and Senator Jim Lankford, a Republican of Oklahoma, co-founders and co-sponsors of the Senate’s Bipartisan Task Force on Combating Anti-Semitism. They’re extremely passionate about this set of issues and about the importance of Holocaust education and combating anti-Semitism. Let’s hear what they have to say.
SENATOR JACKY ROSEN: Hi, I am Senator Jacky Rosen, a Democrat from Nevada.
SENATOR JAMES LANKFORD: And I’m Senator James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma.
SENATOR ROSEN: We are grateful and humbled to come together today to join you and the State Department’s observance of the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, in Hebrew, known as Yom HaShoah.
We come together during this time to remember the six million innocent Jewish mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons whose lives were viciously taken by hate just because of their faith during the Holocaust.
SENATOR LANKFORD: After the U.S. helped liberate concentration camps and bring an end to World War II, we vowed, never again. While we learned valuable lessons on how to recognize the rise of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and how to combat it, we still have a very long way to go. Even though we’re from different political parties, from different parts of the country, and from different faiths, we both recognize that anti-Semitism is sadly and alarmingly growing today.
SENATOR ROSEN: That’s why two years ago, Senator Lankford and I co-founded the Senate’s Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism.
SENATOR LANKFORD: Yeah. Our goals are to educate and empower Americans and our friends abroad about the importance of working together to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate in the U.S. and worldwide.
SENATOR ROSEN: At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise around the world, we must act to counter Holocaust distortion and denial while also teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to prevent future global atrocities.
SENATOR LANKFORD: Senator Rosen and I came together to form this important group, which now boasts membership by more than one-third of the United States Senate.
SENATOR ROSEN: Senator Lankford, members of the task force, and I led a resolution to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by Allied Forces.
SENATOR LANKFORD: Last year, that resolution passed the Senate unanimously.
SENATOR ROSEN: We’ve also worked together to successfully double funding last year for grants to protect religious institutions from physical harm, because no one should have to worry about their safety as they pray or send their children to school.
SENATOR LANKFORD: After devastating attacks rocked Jewish communities in Pittsburgh and California and countless incidents of hate and anti-Semitism continued at an alarming rate, we knew we had to take action together.
SENATOR ROSEN: Our task force has used our voices to engage local communities and foreign governments, calling out anti-Semitism when it rears its ugly head.
SENATOR LANKFORD: As the coronavirus pandemic came to the fore in April of last year, Senator Rosen and I joined 180 Jewish organizations to call on Americans to reject anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
SENATOR ROSEN: We will continue to push back against the alarming rise in Holocaust distortion and denial, whether in the dark corners of the internet or voiced by politicians. Minimizing or misrepresenting the Holocaust not only dishonors its victims and survivors, but also feeds into anti-Semitic narratives and can lead to more violent forms of anti-Semitism.
SENATOR LANKFORD: We’ve also praised our global partners when they take positive steps to better identify and address anti-Semitism, like adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition.
SENATOR ROSEN: From these dark chapters of our past and present, we must band together to bring forth a brighter future. Just like the famous single candle at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, we are committed to using hope to light the way forward.
SENATOR LANKFORD: Together, we can combat hate and help make this world a safer and more peaceful place for all– Jews, Christians, all communities of faith.
SENATOR ROSEN: So we hope you will join us today in taking a moment to remember the millions of Jews who lost their lives because of hate and ignorance.
SENATOR LANKFORD: We also take a moment to think about one action that you can take to ensure we keep their memory alive and to honor them.
SENATOR ROSEN: Today, we can take a moment to reach out to one another, and together we can take positive steps towards ending anti-Semitism and educating others about the facts.
SENATOR LANKFORD: Thank you again for joining us and working together to combat anti-Semitism.
SENATOR ROSEN AND SENATOR LANKFORD: (TOGETHER) Thank you.
MS. DANIELS: Thank you, Senators Lankford and Rosen. Really, really appreciate your taking the time to do that in the midst of everything that’s happening on the need for vigilance on this topic, because I know that you share that passion. I’d now like to introduce recorded remarks from Ambassador Gilad Erdan, Ambassador of Israel to the United States and double-hatted as Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Ambassador Erdan is the first person to serve as both Ambassador and Perm Rep to the UN since Abba Eban in the 1950s.
He served in the Israeli Knesset for 17 years and had several ministerial positions, including Minister of Public Security, Minister of Strategic Affairs, and Minister of Environmental Protection, among others. Let’s hear Ambassador Erdan.
AMBASSADOR GILAD ERDAN: Hello, everyone. I want to start by thanking Acting Assistant Secretary Phil Reeker and Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Cherrie Daniels, for hosting this important event. It speaks volumes about your commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and about the unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States.
I also want to thank the Senate Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism, led by Senators Rosen and Lankford for all of the important work that you do fighting the world’s oldest form of hate. Legislation such as the Never Again Education Act are crucial for teaching future generations about the terrors of the Holocaust in order to ensure that they never happen again.
From a very young age, Yom HaShoah was very important to me. I was always very close to my grandparents. All four of them survived the Holocaust and rebuilt their lives in Israel, three enduring the horrors of Auschwitz.
It was they who instilled in me the importance of fighting against anti-Semitism. They taught me that we cannot afford to wait for anti-Semitic rhetoric to turn into physical violence before taking action. Because if we do, it could be too late.
In order to effectively fight anything, we must first define what it is we are fighting against. The IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism provides a clear definition not only of classic anti-Semitism, but also of its modern manifestation, denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. There is a clear difference between criticizing a certain policy enacted by Israel to claiming that it doesn’t have the right to exist in the first place. One is legitimate. The other is anti-Semitism.
Falsely accusing the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East of human rights violations while ignoring the worst human rights violators in the world, such as Iran and Syria, is a double standard for the world’s only Jewish state. It is anti-Semitism. We are so grateful to our closest ally, the United States of America, for embracing the IHRA definition, which helps make these distinctions and fight against anti-Semitism.
We must continue to work together to encourage other countries to embrace the definition so that we can bring an end to this bigotry. We must also fight against the cynical evil that is Holocaust distortion and denial. By trying to distort the consequences of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial is not only a disgrace to the memories of the victims, they also threaten us all. As we have all learned, anti-Semitism, like every form of hate, is a danger to everyone.
MS. DANIELS: Thank you. Thank you, Ambassador Erdan. I really appreciate that he took the time before Passover began to record that for us and share his message. I’d now like to introduce our final speaker, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, New York-born, currently the Chief Rabbi of Poland, who will be reciting some traditional prayers in memory of those murdered in the Holocaust.
He also worked as the rabbi in Japan, where he began to really keep the focus on people like Consul General Sugihara who had saved Polish Jews from his seat as Consul in Lithuania during World War II. Rabbi Schudrich, thank you for taking time, and over to you.
CHIEF RABBI MICHAEL SCHUDRICH: Thank you, Cherrie. I’m standing right now in the Nozyk Synagogue, the only synagogue in Warsaw that survived World War II. A city– there were dozens of large synagogues like this one, along with hundreds of shtiblekh, and we’re standing now in the only synagogue that survives in Warsaw.
And I was going to say Kaddish, but I’m not saying Kaddish, because I’m alone. I’m alone, because the current coronavirus is so virulent right now in Poland, that we’ve closed this synagogue two weeks ago for prayers. I’m here by myself in order to make sure everyone is safe.
And just before I begin the prayers of Psalm 130, the El Maleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer, we’ve heard so many important words today. Let’s take this moment to not only to listen but really to bring the messages that we’ve heard deep into our souls, which is something that I learned from Professor Bauer many years ago when I was his student at Hebrew University. Psalm 130.
[PRAYER IN HEBREW]
The memorial prayer, El Maleh Rachamim.
[PRAYER IN HEBREW]
MS. DANIELS: Thank you, Rabbi Schudrich, for closing on that solemn note and bringing into our hearts the messages that we’ve heard today. On behalf of the Department of State, I want to express profound appreciation to you and to each of our speakers who participated in today’s program. Thanks also to all of you who are joining from around the United States and around the world at our missions and at the diplomatic missions here in Washington and elsewhere.
I would be remiss if I did not point out also that Secretary Tony Blinken will be the featured speaker this Thursday, April 8, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s national commemoration of Yom HaShoah. I believe you’ll be seeing registration information for that shortly on the screen.
My hope is that next year, we can return to our practice of holding Yom HaShoah commemorations live and in person, as we’ve done in the past, perhaps now with the global Zoom audience as well. Thank you all for being with us today.