Remembering the Past, Safeguarding the Future

Posted by: John Kerry, the 68th Secretary of State

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2014_0127_holocaust_memorial“It was so terrible. It was hard for the mind to absorb it.” Those were the words of U.S. Master Sergeant Marvin Josephs as he entered Buchenwald on April 12, 1945, along with military chaplain Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

Decades later, Josephs still remembered vividly the words “You’re free” reverberating from Rabbi Schachter’s bullhorn. He remembered seeing the crematoria and the house of the commandant and his notorious wife, Ilse Koch, the “Beast of Buchenwald.” Above all, he remembered the survivors — emaciated and tortured — coming forward at the sound of the rabbi’s bullhorn.

The scenes of liberated prisoners were so overwhelming that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered every man in the U.S. 4th Armored Division to walk the grounds of Buchenwald. Josephs immediately understood why: “He didn’t want people to ever deny what happened.”

Nearly 70 years after World War Two ended, 70 years after the world’s collective horror at the Holocaust, anti-Semitism remains a global menace. It is not enough to remember the millions of innocent lives lost in one of the darkest chapters in all of world history. We must reaffirm our vow never to forget the evil that comes from bigotry and intolerance and turn that commitment into action.

Many of us in the United States have personal and family connections to this difficult history – and to the cause of action now. My brother’s interest in our family’s genealogy took him back to the Czech Republic just months ago to learn more about the history of ancestors we had never even heard about until the last decade, stories of a great uncle Otto and his sister Jenni who perished in the Holocaust.

I’ll never forget, on my first trip to Berlin as Secretary of State, meeting with a group of young Germans. They told me something I never knew about the city where I’d spent time growing up in the aftermath of World War Two. Throughout the city, they’ve placed “stumbling stones” to mark where Jews were murdered in the streets and other victims of the Holocaust. Every day, passers-by remember what happened — and equally important — they never forget or deny it.

Holocaust Remembrance Day calls us to condemn anti-Semitism in every form – whether it’s the disturbing rise of xenophobic and anti-Semitic parties in Europe or the uptick of violence against Jewish people anywhere in the world.

The EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights 2013 Report on Anti-Semitism underscores the stakes. One third of those surveyed experienced some form of anti-Semitic harassment over the past five years, with 26 percent enduring verbal assault or harassment over the past year alone — just because they were Jewish.

What’s more, 4 percent reported physical violence and 23 percent said they avoid Jewish events or sites because they don’t feel safe.

Of course, the numbers don’t tell the full story.

In Italy, police are tracking down the culprit who sent pig heads last week to Rome’s Grand Synagogue, the Israeli Embassy, and a museum sponsoring a Holocaust exhibit.

In Romania, a government-owned television channel aired a profoundly anti-Semitic Christmas song, which claimed that Jews are only good “in the chimney as smoke.”

If these acts of hate don’t hit you in the gut, I don’t know what will. If this isn’t a call to action, I don’t know what is.

We need to be forceful about what is right and what is wrong. But we also need to work to recognize our common humanity in others, and to start the conversations that will help others recognize ours.

That’s why the Obama Administration has launched the Atrocities Prevention Board. That’s why we’re working hand in glove with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide so that we can detect and highlight this global scourge.

And that’s why, last year, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman and President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Rashad Hussain joined an historic interfaith visit to the concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The United States is committed to having the difficult conversations across cultures and religions that can actually change people’s opinions. Pope Francis calls it “the dialogue of life,” and we reaffirm today that there are indeed millions of lives that depend on it.

We — each of us — have a responsibility to stand up and affirm human dignity. In an interconnected world, anti-Semitism that goes unanswered anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. That is a collective challenge we all face in the 21st century.


3 thoughts on “Remembering the Past, Safeguarding the Future

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