The purpose of Holocaust remembrance must be the prevention of other genocides

Remarks delivered to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Inaugural Second Generation Leadership Mission, Washington, DC, November 15, 2015.

Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo observes a moment of silence during a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, January 14 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo observes a moment of silence during a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, January 14
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I am honored to have been asked to speak to you here in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum which, in truth, could and perhaps should be called the Hall of Memory.
Why “memory” in an institution devoted to memory? Because memory must come before remembrance. Memories are what we remember, willingly or unwillingly. And because here, surrounded by the names of the places where millions were murdered, each of us is able – perhaps is mandated – to confront memories of events we did not witness but which are very much a legacy we have received and that we must in turn pass on.
My assigned topic this evening was our unique identity as children of survivors, and I was asked to connect that identity with this museum which has been a part of my life for literally the past 35 years, ever since president Carter appointed my mother as a member of his Commission on the Holocaust and then as a founding member of the US Holocaust Memorial Council. I then served as chair of council chairman Elie Wiesel’s Second Generation Advisory Committee, and, in 1994, was privileged to succeed my mother as a member of the council. During my first two terms on the council, I served as a member of the council’s executive committee, and as the chairperson of several committees; and in 2010, I was reappointed to the council by President Obama.
I was fully prepared to speak about our collective identity this evening, but ever since I heard of the horrors perpetrated in Paris on Friday night, I knew that I would have to devote a good part of the time allotted to me to a different theme. We cannot just look backward, focusing our attention on our own past alone. We must focus on the present and future, and on why we are here – not here in Washington, DC, this evening, but why we are here on this earth at all.
This past week, the museum’s Simon- Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide issued a report in which it determined that IS, the so-called Islamic State or Islamic Caliphate, has perpetrated and is continuing to perpetrate a genocide against the Yezidi population in the Ninewa province of Northern Iraq.
The fact that the likes of IS and Boko Haram are perpetrating mass atrocities that amount to crimes against humanity is nothing new. Writing in The New York Times a little more than a year ago, World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder decried the world’s general indifference in the face of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East and Africa. Ambassador Lauder vowed that “just as I will not be silent in the face of the growing threat of anti-Semitism in Europe and in the Middle East, I will not be indifferent to Christian suffering.... The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent. This campaign of death must be stopped.”
The center’s report is the result of a fact-finding trip to Iraq in September of this year. “We found,” the report’s authors determined, that IS “committed mass atrocities to control, expel and exterminate ethnic and religious minorities in areas it seized,” that IS “committed crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing against those communities in Ninewa,” and that “genocide was perpetrated against the Yezidi people in the region.”
In many ways, this report answers the often-asked question of why we need a museum to commemorate the Holocaust on the Mall in Washington, DC. We need the museum not only to commemorate the past but to stand as a beacon, a rallying cry to alert and sensitize the world to genocides and other atrocities that are being perpetrated in our own times, whether in Darfur or Rwanda, in Srebrenica or, today, in the Middle East.
To be meaningful, remembrance cannot be only backward-looking but must also have an affirmative purpose. Which brings me back to us, the sons and daughters of the survivors of the Holocaust.
First, let me remind us all what we are not. We are not survivors in any sense of that term. Our parents alone – and the actual survivors of other genocides for that matter – are entitled to that designation and that distinction. No one else. We, their sons and daughters who were born after World War II, were not persecuted. We were not forced into ghettos, subjected to starvation, or deported to death and concentration camps. We did not suffer. We did not watch our families being murdered. And we did not have to painfully, both physically and spiritually, return to life and rebuild, retrieve our faith in humankind.
Consequently, we do not have any special privileges. We have, however, a unique obligation, one which we share with those of our children who have known their grandparents, our parents.
We who have grown up with the survivors of the Shoah are, in effect, their witnesses, their attestors.
MY MOTHER, who had been an inmate at Auschwitz-Birkenau for 15 months, died hours after the end of Rosh Hashana in 1997. Six months later, I took our daughter, Jodi, then a college sophomore, to Poland for the first time. She and my mother had been very close and had spent a great deal of time together as Jodi was growing up.
We went to Warsaw and Krakow, and then to Auschwitz. It was a grey day, with a constant drizzle. I showed Jodi Block 11 at Auschwitz, the death block where my father was tortured for months after he had escaped and been recaptured, and then we went to Birkenau. We walked in silence past the decaying wooden barracks. After 15 or 20 minutes, Jodi turned to me and said, “You know, it looks exactly the way Dassah [which is what she called my mother, Hadassah] described it.” In that moment, I realized that a transfer of memory had taken place. My daughter, born 33 years after the Holocaust, had recognized Birkenau through my mother’s eyes, through my mother’s memories which Jodi had absorbed into her consciousness.
We cannot escape the somber fact that we are at a transitional moment in the process of Holocaust remembrance. For the past 70 years, the survivors of the Shoah kept the memory of what had been done to them, to their families, and to European Jewry at the forefront of their society’s consciousness.
Sadly but inevitably, they are now fading from the scene, and they have entrusted the principal responsibility for preserving and perpetuating their memories to their children and grandchildren as a hallowed inheritance that we in turn must transmit to our and to future generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, not with the survivors’ fervor and intensity but with our own.
With the passing of time, we have a tendency to become nuanced in our attitudes, in our judgments. We want to extend to our enemies the benefit of the doubt. We look for decency even where it is clear that none exists. We are attracted to Anne Frank’s observation in her diary that, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
In his book Beyond Good and Evil, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged that, “there may actually be puritanical fanatics of conscience who prefer even a certain nothing to an uncertain something to lie down on – and die. But this is nihilism and the sign of a despairing, mortally weary soul.”
The carnage in Paris on Friday night is a harsh, brutal reminder that evil, absolute evil, exists. It is also an equally harsh, brutal reminder that our values are not shared by all, and that there can be no compromise, no common language, with those for whom the perpetration of evil is a mission, a principle of faith.
The Nazis of Third Reich Germany and their multi-national accomplices and collaborators who perpetrated the genocide of European Jewry during the Shoah personified absolute evil. So did the Hutus who perpetrated the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, the thugs of the Republika Srbska forces who perpetrated the genocide of Bosniaks, of Muslim Bosnians at Srebrenica, the Sudanese government-armed militias that perpetrated the genocide in Darfur, and the fanatical adherents of IS responsible for both the genocide of the Yezidis and the carnage in Paris.
Standing here in the Hall of Remembrance, our thoughts must encompass the victims of all these genocides, for they are all the victims of the same evil, the evil of bigotry and intolerance that this museum is mandated and pledged to expose and fight against, not with guns, bombs and missiles, but with ideas and ideals.
Our future, the future of humankind, depends on our knowledge, our remembrance, of the horrors to which our parents and our families were subjected during the Holocaust, and what we, collectively, do with that knowledge. “Those who cannot remember the past,” wrote George Santayana famously, “are condemned to repeat it.”
Perhaps the most important purpose of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is to change the future by at least trying to prevent future genocides and similar atrocities.
And one of our principal obligations as the children of the survivors of the Shoah is to integrate the legacy of memory we have inherited from our parents into this core mission of the museum.
The author, editor of God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015), teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities.