Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is a solemn day in which we remember the six million Jews, including one and a half million children, along with millions of others who were victims of Nazi brutality who were murdered between 1933-1945; honor the 330,000 survivors worldwide, a third in Israel; and recognize how the absence of a Jewish state in which European Jews could take refuge directly contributed to the Shoah.
There was nothing inevitable about the Holocaust. It is history’s most tragic example of what happens when people and governments are indifferent in the face of evil. At a time of high levels of anti-Semitism, the United States and the western world were indifferent. President Roosevelt did not want World War II to be perceived as a war for the Jews, who were expendable, just as other religious and ethnic minorities are in 21st-century genocides today. Hitler’s original goal was to make Germany judenrein, free of Jews, but they had nowhere to go. Hitler proceeded carefully and methodically, taking one ghastly step after another, gauging German public and world reaction, and seeing none proceeded to the Final Solution.
He got a clear signal and said so publicly that the world did not care about the Jews:
- At the 1938 Evian Conference of over 30 countries called by the US to deal with the plight of German Jewish refugees, our country refused to take the lead in lifting rigid immigration quotas;
- In May 1939, the liner SS St. Louis, carrying over 900 German Jewish refugees was refused landing rights in Miami after waiting for three days;
- No US sanctions were imposed on Germany until after the US entered the war;
- President Roosevelt and his close friend US Felix Frankfurter brushed off the eyewitness account provided to them by courageous Polish diplomat Jan Karski, who risked his life by going into the Warsaw Ghetto;
- Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the publisher of the New York Times, instructed his editors to bury stories of the Holocaust;
- American Jewish leaders were largely passive in refusing to pressure Roosevelt, concerned at raising anti-Semitic sentiment.
- Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long instructed US Consulates in Europe to do everything possible to delay Jews from entering the US, leaving one million visa slots unused during the Holocaust.
- The staff of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau presented him with a 1944 report remarkably entitled “The Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews”, leading Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board, which saved tens of thousands of Jews, working with courageous people like Raul Wallenberg, but too late to save more.
Upon the liberation of the death camps, to his great credit, Nazi atrocities were first filmed and revealed to the world by Supreme Allied Commander (later President) Dwight Eisenhower. But the staggering dimensions of the Shoah were not understood. The Holocaust quickly took a back seat as the focus of the US and the western world were the Cold War against the Soviet Union.
- Only a tiny fraction of Nazi perpetrators were tried at Nuremberg, and some senior Nazi officials were recruited by US intelligence against the Soviets;
- Jews trying to reclaim their confiscated homes and businesses were driven off or even killed in Poland and Lithuania and post-war restitution laws in west Europe were inadequate;
- Many Survivors were placed in squalid Displaced Persons Camps: President Truman’s representative concluded: “we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except we do not exterminate them”.
- The British, still in control of Palestine, kept over 50,000 survivors from entering camps in Cyprus, some up to five years;
- Eyewitnesses like Elie Wiesel spent years trying to get his classic book Night published, finally in 1962.
But the monstrous dimensions of the Holocaust could not be hidden forever, although action to deal with its consequences was slow and painful. The April 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, now exactly 60 years ago, following his dramatic capture by Israeli agents in Argentina, broadcast to the world the face of evil and the dimensions of the murder of the Jew.
I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia in a home suffused with Judaism, with a father and two uncles who served in the military, but the Holocaust was never discussed and I never met a survivor. My confrontation with the Holocaust occurred after leaving the White House Staff of President Johnson and becoming research director of the presidential campaign of Vice President Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon when I met a co-worked Arthur Morse, who had just published a path-breaking book While Six Million Died, exposing what President Roosevelt knew about the genocide of the Jews and failed to act upon. This was a shock to me since FDR was an icon, and I pledged to myself if ever given the chance in the US government to remove this cloud from the World War II history of the US whose brave soldiers helped win the war, but whose government did so little to save the Jews. Morse’s book opened the floodgates to a whole genre of books written by eminent historians about the Shoah and documentaries, like the 1978 NBC series “Holocaust” and Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 “Shoah”, as well as movies like” Sophie’s Choice” and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 “Schindler’s List”.
Beyond books and films, for the first time in the history of warfare, a unique process was created by which a country that had abused its own citizens and those of the countries it occupied, agreed to compensate Survivors wherever they lived. In September 1951, the first post-war German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer accepted responsibility in his world “for the unspeakable crimes that have been committed in the name of the German people.” One month later, 23 Jewish organizations, convened by Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, created the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, the Claims Conference, and in a historic agreement in Luxembourg in September 1952, the State of Israel, represented by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, and the West German government agreed to direct payments to Survivors by Germany and through the Claims Conference. Since then, Germany has paid over $80 billion to Survivors. I became Special Negotiator in 2009, along with Roman Kent and the Holocaust survivor team from Israel, Poland, and the UK, and we greatly expanded eligibility and have negotiated over $9 billion in benefits for low-income needy Survivors with dramatically higher monthly pensions, Hardship Fund payments, special supplemental payment for Survivors from the former Soviet Union, increases in home care services from 34 million Euros in 2009 to 554 million Euros in 2021, and just a few weeks ago, a new 11 million Euro program to help poor Survivors obtain COVID vaccines.
Beyond the Claims Conference, I led a unique effort during my eight years in the Clinton Administration and then continuing in the Obama administration, to negotiate over $8 billion in recoveries for Holocaust survivors and heirs of victims, for the first time in history, from private companies for the harm they caused to civilians, mostly Jews, during World War II. The Holocaust was not only the largest genocide in world history; it was the largest theft, only a small fraction of which has been recovered. With the full support of the presidents and secretaries of state, we negotiated settlements of class action cases in the US against Swiss and French banks, which hid Jewish accounts deposited for safekeeping; German and Austrian slave and forced labor companies (which included payments for the first time to non-Jewish forced laborers from Poland, and other Central and Eastern European companies); European insurance companies, which refused to honor policies after the War; the French government for transporting Jews on their state-owned railway; the restitution or compensation of private and communal property (synagogues, Jewish school, community centers, even cemeteries); and the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art and 2009 Terezin Declaration, which has led to the restitution or compensation for thousands of the 600,000 Nazi-looted artworks and to pensions to survivors from Austria and Poland wherever they now live.
And yet with all of this we should be embarrassed on Yom HaShoah, that at least 50% of the 330,000 Holocaust Survivors in the world are poor or near-poor: some 90% of the 44,000 Survivors in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe; 30% of the 55,000 in the US (40% in New York City); and 35% of the 150,000 in the Jewish State of Israel. It is unacceptable that those who suffered so grievously in their youth should live their declining years with further indignities. There has been an ambivalence in Israel toward its Holocaust Survivors. There is a moving moment of nationwide silence on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Yad Vashem is a remarkable testimony to the Shoah. But there were demonstrations years ago by Survivors for their inadequate benefits.
But the final word on the Holocaust must be a memory, not money. This is more important than ever with rising anti-Semitism in the West and declining knowledge of the Holocaust. Survivors, the eyewitnesses, are passing away at the rate of 6% a year. A recent survey of American Millennials and so-called Generation Z young people showed almost half could not name a single one of the more than 40,000 concentration camps, camps or ghettos established during World War II; 56% could not identify Auschwitz; 63% did not know that six million Jews were killed; and astonishingly, 11% blamed the Jews for the Holocaust. Roughly half have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posted on their social media platforms. On a positive note, almost two-thirds felt that Holocaust knowledge should be compulsory in schools and 80% believed it was important to learn about the Holocaust.
The need to preserve memory is what led me to recommend to President Carter in April 1978, a Presidential Commission on the Holocaust chaired by Elie Wiesel, which in turn proposed the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Since it opened in 1993, there have been 50 million visitors, some 90% non-Jews. Yad Vashem is the second most visited site by tourists next to the Western Wall, with approximately one million visitors per year since it opened in 1953.
In January 2000, as deputy secretary of the Treasury, I worked with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson to establish what has become the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance of over 30 countries to promote Holocaust education in their school systems. Unfortunately, only 17 of our 50 states have mandatory Holocaust education, although others permit it. In 2020, the US Congress passed the Never Again Holocaust Education Act to provide $10 million to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum for grants throughout the country to promote Holocaust education. And in our most recent Claims Conference negotiations with Germany, the German government has agreed to fund Holocaust education through the Claims Conference around the world, which began in 2020 and will increase to 18 million Euros by 2023.
But education about what happened in the Shoah is not enough. On this Yom HaShoah, we must pledge to learn the lessons from the Holocaust in our own actions in the 21st century. In Israel, that means all Jews should respect each other, regardless of their religious practices. In 1939, before the War there were 17 million Jews in a world of two billion; today there are only 14.7 million Jews in a world of seven billion. We cannot afford to be divided. When Mengele made his “selections” at Auschwitz he did not distinguish between Orthodox, Reform or secular Jews, or ask by whom converts were converted.
More broadly, we will truly honor the memory of those who perished in the Shoah and those who survived, by being tolerant to those who are different, by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference; by Israelis treating all Israeli citizens as equals, Jew or Arab alike. And, yes, by improving the living standards and governance of Palestinians under the control of Israel. By maintaining a vibrant democracy that respects the rule of law and the rights of minorities, Israel will be embodying the lessons of the Holocaust.
Finally, we must stand up ourselves and press our governments, particularly the United States, to speak out and take actions against genocides and mass violations of human rights, wherever they occur: including the Ruyhinga in Myanmar; the Uighurs in China; the Kurds, Sunnis and others in Syria. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, whose step-father Sam Pisar, was a Holocaust survivor, have already made human rights a major pillar of their foreign policy. I hope Israel will do so, as well.