Good afternoon! Ladies and gentlemen, I am glad to have this opportunity to visit Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city and its former capital. As an American; as a Jew; as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor; and as the United States’ Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, it is profoundly moving for me to visit Lithuania again, and in particular, to talk with educators about teaching the Holocaust. I thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.
Yesterday I attended two memorial dedications, one at the Snipiskes cemetery and the other at Paneriai. The Snipiskes cemetery in Vilnius, a pre-war cemetery in which 50,000 Lithuanian Jews are buried, was mostly destroyed and covered by a sports arena during the Soviet regime. After several years of protests against renewed building on the cemetery, Vilnius Municipality has demarcated borders for the cemetery in order to restore its dignity. The Paneriai Memorial, about 10 kilometers from Vilnius, is on the site of the largest mass murder of Jews in Lithuania during World War II. I paid my respects to the 100,000 people who were killed there, of whom 70,000 were Jews. Your government is to be commended for establishing this government-protected memorial. These events remind me of the importance of the work I have been charged with as the Special Envoy.
In our hurried 21st century world, where everything seems to be instant and high-speed and available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a button, it is important to pause – to take time out of our busy lives to remember the past, honor its victims, and pledge to do all we can to prevent future acts of violence and hatred. However, it is not enough to merely use sterling words to try to show the world that we care. We also need concrete actions. To quote Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, we must “create sparks in our hearts out of the ashes.”
As the President’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, I am charged with both monitoring anti-Semitic incidents and combating such intolerance, with creating sparks in our hearts out of the ashes.
As a child of a Holocaust survivor, anti-Semitism is something very personal to me. When I was old enough to somewhat understand what my father went through as the only member of his family to survive, I asked him how he handled his guilt and kept his sanity. He didn’t miss a beat and said: “I survived to have you, Hannele!” – so took that guilt off his shoulders and put it squarely on mine – and I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only Dad could give me.
That path led me on January 27 to walk — voluntarily — through the gates of Auschwitz – under the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign (deceiving the people entering Auschwitz that work will make you free). I went to Auschwitz as a member of the official U.S. delegation to mark the 65th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz.
As President Obama said in his televised remarks at the commemoration, the survivors of Auschwitz “are living memorials. Living memorials to the spirit we must strive to uphold in our time—not simply to bear witness, but to bear a burden. The burden of seeing our common humanity; of resisting anti-Semitism and ignorance in all its forms; of refusing to become bystanders to evil, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly face.”
At Auschwitz, as I traveled on the soil stained with the blood of the Jewish people, I wondered what it all means. The Holocaust was not only the greatest genocide in world history, but also the greatest theft of people’s entire possessions, their cultural and religious heritage. The Nazi’s didn’t just steal people’s lives, they attempted to obliterate an entire culture. We cannot bring back the dead. But we can recommit ourselves to remember them, to do justice to their heirs, and to educate future generations about the Holocaust.
As I left Auschwitz to news of more anti-Semitic statements by religious leaders and anti-Semitic vandalism elsewhere in the world, I couldn’t help but ask, “Did we learn anything?”
I have been on the job for over a year now – and I have seen six significant trends in anti-Semitism around the world:
First of all, anti-Semitism is not History, it is News. I run into people who think anti-Semitism ended when Hitler killed himself. More than six decades after the end of the Second World War, anti-Semitism is still alive and well, and evolving into new, contemporary forms of religious hatred, racism, and political, social and cultural bigotry.
Traditional forms of anti-Semitism persist in societies worldwide, passed from one generation to the next, and updated to reflect current events. We are all familiar with ongoing hostile acts such as the defacing of property, desecration of cemeteries, and even accusations of blood libel, which are morphing from the centuries old Church accusations that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood for rituals to accusations that Jews kidnap children to steal their organs. Conspiracy theories continue to flourish, such as supposed Jewish control of the U.S. media and the world banking system, or that Jews were involved in executing the September 11 attacks. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion continue to be best sellers in many, many countries, and taught to religious students as truth. The ‘old fashioned’ anti-Semitism is alive and well.
A second phenomenon is Holocaust denial. It is coming from religious leaders in some places, including some heads of State, such as in Iran, in academic institutions in some places, and is a standard on hateful websites and other media outlets. As the generation of Holocaust survivors and death camp liberators reaches their eighties and nineties, the window is closing on those able to provide eyewitness accounts. There is a heightened urgency to promote Holocaust education, create museums and memorials, and carry the memory and lessons of the Holocaust forward.
A third, disturbing trend is Holocaust glorification – which can be seen in events that openly display Nazi symbols, in the growth of neo-Nazi groups, and is especially virulent in Middle East media – some that is state owned and operated – calling for a new Holocaust to finish the job. And in Latvia, a notorious neo-Nazi made blatantly anti-Semitic statements, including incitements to violence against Jews, on a television talk show. Truly bone-chilling.
A fourth concern is Holocaust relativism – where some governments, museums, academic research and the like are conflating the Holocaust with other terrible events that entailed great human suffering. No one wants to get into dueling atrocities. But to lump together these horrific chapters of history is not only historically inaccurate, it also misses opportunities to learn important lessons from each historic event even as we reflect on universal truths about the need to defend human rights and combat hatred in all of its forms. History must be precise – it must instruct, it must warn, and it must inspire us to learn the particular and universal values as we prepare to mend this fractured world.
The fifth trend is the increasing tendency of opposition to the policies of the State of Israel to cross the line into anti-Semitism. What I hear from our diplomatic missions, and from our close relationship with non-governmental organizations in the U.S. and around the world, is that this happens easily and often. I want to be clear – criticism of policies of the State of Israel is not anti-Semitism. But we record huge increases in anti-Semitism whenever there are hostilities in the Middle East. This form of anti-Semitism is more difficult for many to identify. But if all Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the sovereign State of Israel, when governments call upon and intimidate their Jewish communities to condemn Israeli actions, when all academics and experts from Israel are effectively banned or their conferences boycotted, or individual Jews are held responsible for Israeli policy – – this is not objecting to a policy – this is anti-Semitism. Natan Sharansky identified the “Three Ds” that cross the line: “It is anti-Semitic when Israel is demonized, held to different standards or delegitimized.” The U.S. is often the only “no” vote in international bodies where countries seem to have an obsession with singling out Israel for disproportionate condemnation.
The sixth trend is the growing nationalistic movements which target ‘the other’ – be they immigrants, or religious and ethnic minorities in the name of protecting the identity and ‘purity’ of their nation. When this fear or hatred of the ‘other’ occurs or when people try to find a scapegoat for the instability around them, it is never good for the Jews. The history of Europe, with Russian pogroms and Nazism, provides sufficient evidence. And when government officials talk about protecting a country’s purity, we’ve seen that movie before.
It is easy to feel discouraged that this issue continues to plague our societies, but it underscores the importance of the need to work even harder. Our job will not be finished until anti-Semitism is a distant memory. And yet the memory itself has profound value as it continues to teach us. Of course, it isn’t enough to study and monitor these deeply troubling trends. It is critical that we act to reverse them.
The Nazi effort to exterminate all Jews was well known – Mein Kampf was a best seller in 1933. So people knew what Hitler wanted to do. Never before or after the Holocaust has any country built death factories, and the success of their efforts has no equivalency anywhere in history. In Vilnius, Jews were almost 30% of the population in 1931. Out of 60,000 local Jews, 57,000 were murdered, by Nazis, unfortunately in collaboration with some Lithuanian military units, auxiliary police, and countrymen. Of the country’s 250,000 Jewish citizens and residents, only 6,000 survived. Lithuania had the highest percentage of its Jewish population murdered, higher than anywhere else in Europe.
There are several stories of brave and honorable Lithuanians who assisted, sheltered and saved Jews during this organized killing spree. Many of them were killed for doing so – and 780 are honored as “righteous among us” at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial to the 6 million Jews lost during the Holocaust.
How much of this history do the people of Lithuania know? They need to know the terrible stories of the extermination of Lithuania Jews, but they should also know the importance of Jews to Lithuanian culture and history.
After Grand Duke Gediminas personally invited them to Vilnius in the 14th century, the Jews flourished, along with other ethnic groups. They built enormous educational systems, and the city became known as “The Northern Jerusalem”. Beautiful Jewish artwork was part of the Lithuanian culture. Jewish scholars and poets and authors lived in Lithuania. And had their families not left Lithuania due to persecution, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Aaron Klug, and musicians Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and even John Stewart could have been from Lithuania!!
In this connection, I want to say that I know that living under Soviet oppression for so many years was beyond terrible, and I understand the severity of your suffering. Everyone’s intense pain is unique and needs to be acknowledged.
There is a famous saying that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is our challenge now – to learn from the past and prepare for the future.
The goal of fighting anti-Semitism is a high priority for the Obama Administration. We focus on what is going on in the world, regularly reporting on incidents of anti-Semitism and other human rights violations and abuses. I work with American Embassies, as well as non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and watchdog groups around the world to gather information on 194 countries, including Lithuania. Each year we produce two major reports – the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the International Religious Freedom Report. Both are on-line and can be easily accessed by any of you who are interested how your country and others are doing in protecting human rights and fighting anti-Semitism.
These reports tell us that many countries are pushing hard to advance human rights and fighting discrimination. It also tells us that there is so much more work to do.
I am now involved in developing a major training initiative for State Department employees so they can better monitor what is happening in the countries where they work, and sensitize them to the various forms of anti-Semitism – this will make our annual reports more comprehensive, and allow us to do an even better job of monitoring and confronting anti-Semitism in all its forms. If we don’t chronicle it, if we don’t name it, we can’t fight it.
Education is a vital tool we use to combat anti-Semitism.
Your role as teachers is essential to our efforts. I can work to make change with leaders of communities and groups of individuals, but you work directly with youth on a day-to-day basis. You have the ability to affect significant change too.
As educators, you play an integral role in laying the foundation to promote tolerance and to understand the dangers of hatred. As with any form of prejudice, anti-Semitism is often based in ignorance and fear. Therefore, it is necessary to have well trained teachers who can appropriately and effectively discuss the lessons of the Holocaust. Your presence at this training exemplifies your commitment to educating Lithuania’s youth.
The Lithuanian government has taken significant steps to recognize the Holocaust as a part of Lithuania’s history, in particular, and Europe’s history, in general. By declaring 2011 “the Year of Remembrance of Lithuanian citizens – Holocaust Victims,” the Government of Lithuania is emphasizing the centrality of the Holocaust to your particular history. Lithuania’s grant from the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research underlines your government’s commitment to incorporate the Holocaust into schools and other institutions. By broadening your knowledge of the unique character of the Holocaust and its role in European history, as well as its repercussions that deeply influence human rights education, policies and practices in today’s world, you will be better able to transmit invaluable lessons to your students.
The approach to Holocaust education is two-fold. The Holocaust was a significant part of your country’s history. It is important to learn about this within the context of your own history and World War II. It is equally important to teach the Holocaust in the greater context of universal values of human rights, including tolerance and combating hatred.
The Holocaust forces us to question and discuss basic moral issues. It is a basis for understanding the foundations and consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping. It provides a context to study the nature of discrimination and the effects of extremist governments. Discrimination is not just state-sponsored prejudices – it can start as bullying in schools, or cyber bullying, or hate speech.
In the Lithuanian Ministry of Education mandated curriculum, the Holocaust is being integrated into an accepted national history. It is commendable that the Government of Lithuania has recognized the Holocaust as a defining part of its history. Discussions about the various groups – including perpetrators, collaborators, victims, and bystanders – allows for open dialogue and analyses of the complex issues of the Holocaust. Keep in mind – the Holocaust is an extremely complex event. It is important to recognize that there are many unknowns, much research still needs to be conducted. However, there is so much to learn from the research and firsthand accounts available today.
In education, it is important to stimulate intellectual curiosity among students, get them to ask questions, challenge ideas, analyze situations. The Holocaust does exactly this. We want them to ask questions – how did this happen? Why didn’t people stop it? Why did they target the Jews and other minorities? In this forum, we can approach the topics of prejudice, stereotypes, human rights violations and ramifications of each of these. We can discuss the use and abuse of power, repercussions of staying silent, the value of diversity, the need for tolerance. We want to educate our youth to recognize the warning signs for intolerance and halt it in its tracks.
We are facing an inevitable challenge to Holocaust education – what will we do when there are no longer survivors, liberators or other eyewitnesses who can recount their firsthand accounts of the Holocaust? Personal testimonies have been an effective tool in Holocaust education over the past several decades. Soon we will rely primarily on videos or recordings of their testimonies. Since the Holocaust took place on your soil, you have many physical markers – 202 memorial sites across the country. This is a useful educational tool to help students bear witness to the events that took place in Lithuania. Take advantage of your location and incorporate these places in your efforts.
You, as educators, play one of the most important roles: exposing students to the history, creating a safe space in which to discuss difficult topics, and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust to the youth of Lithuania.
We should remain committed to confronting and combating hate in all its forms. Reinforcing Holocaust education, promoting acceptance, respect and tolerance – as well as building bridges among ethnic and religious groups, is the way to change a culture – from fear and negative stereotyping to acceptance and understanding, from narrow mindedness to an embrace of diversity, from hate to tolerance.
In teaching the Holocaust, there is a tension between the universal and the particular. While the Jewish story is a unique one and anti-Semitism has unique aspects – and both are stories that must be told – hate and intolerance are too common. Nothing justifies intolerance – not economic instability, not international events. We condemn intolerance against any and all religious and ethnic groups. We must all work with each other to condemn anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred. It is the right thing to do, it has great impact, and it meets the needs of enlightened self-interest. For when hatred for one is extinguished, life is better for all.
I congratulate you for participating in this important course and for combating anti-Semitism and other hatreds in all their forms. You represent the future; you will lead educational efforts to make anti-Semitism something only found in history books. We are counting on you to translate the lessons of the past to create a better and more tolerant world.
Thank you for all you are doing and will be doing.