Hello, everybody. At the service where I laid a wreath on behalf of the United States and the American people, the wreath bore the inscription, “Unto every person there is a name.” And one of the most extraordinary features of a visit to Yad Vashem is the way in which the individuals, the names, the faces, the personal stories, and the personal experiences are captured and how deep those stories cut for anybody who visits this remarkable museum. This is my fourth visit to Yad Vashem – my third to the new Yad Vashem – but every visit, I feel, cuts even deeper than the one before. You can’t visit this place too often. You can’t spend enough time looking at the exhibits, seeing those faces, remembering what was lost, thinking about what would be today that isn’t if not for the horrors of what was carried out.
I just wanted to share a story or two as well that I have been moved by over the years in my work at the United Nations, but also in my work before it, documenting the major genocides of the 20th century – above all, the Holocaust – and what the United States and other countries did and didn’t do to prevent horrors like the ones captured here.
At the United Nations, on Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, we heard from a Holocaust survivor that Ambassador Danon brought to New York. Her name was Marta Wise. And Marta told her story.
On October 8th, 1944, armed soldiers came to the home of Marta and her sister Eva. The girls’ parents had sent them to Nitra, in Czechoslovakia, where they posed as orphans. Unfortunately, neighbors suspected that they might be committing the “cardinal sin” – the sin of being Jewish – and they alerted the SS. The girls were arrested and packed into cattle cars with nearly a hundred people. The day that happened, Marta told us, was her 10th birthday.
When the sisters arrived at Auschwitz, it was filled to capacity. So the prisoners were driven around for three more days, giving the Nazis time to kill enough people just to make space for the new arrivals. And when they eventually entered, Marta said, they were told to walk slowly toward a man who, as each person approached, pointed with a baton – left or right – gas chambers or work. The man was Dr. Mengele.
Now, when Marta shared this experience at the United Nations, you could have heard a pin drop in the chamber. But perhaps the most powerful summons in what she shared was when she said the following: “People often ask, where was God during the Holocaust?” she said. “But my question is: Where was man?” And again, that is a question posed so powerfully in this museum. Where was man? Where was everyone else?
To reflect on the Holocaust as one has to do, day in, day out, is to see an infinite universe of moments when people failed to stand up for their fellow human beings. And Marta’s question, I think, is a haunting one, but it should also be an inspiring, and even an empowering one. Where was man in those moments? Where was man when the Nuremberg Laws were first adopted? Where was man during Kristallnacht? Where was man when Jews sought to escape what was coming in Europe, when they boarded the St. Louis, when they showed up on our shores, where was man?
In the Pirke Avot, Hillel says, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” And in remembering the Holocaust, Yad Vashem also remembers those who strove to be men. The righteous. People like Nicholas Winton, who helped 669 children escape from Czechoslovakia, forging documents, planning transport, finding foster families – children who today have more than 6,000 descendants. Six thousand. Because he was a man.
People like Jan Karski, who risked his life to tell the story, to see the story, to see it with his own eyes so that when he sat down with President Roosevelt he would not be repeating what someone had told someone who told him, but so he could describe to the President of the United States what he saw with his own eyes.
If we are truly to honor the memory of those who were killed in the Shoah, we must honor the memory of those lost. We must never stop honoring the memory of those lost. And we must seek, as this incredible memorial and museum has done, to give them names and to tell their stories. But we must also try to carry the example of the righteous with us as we go forward. To try somehow to live as they lived. So that when the question comes for us – as it surely will – where were we? We may say, when that question is posed: We were among those who strove to be men and women in places where there were none. Thank you.
Source: U.S Department of State
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