It is my pleasure to help mark the twentieth (20th) anniversary of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service, the Austrian Service Abroad. I understand that some of you are currently serving at Holocaust memorial institutions around the world. I commend the Government of Austria for implementing this program two decades ago. What a wonderful opportunity to serve your country and, indeed, the world. It is also a chance to come to terms with one of the most sinister and evil chapter of history, the unthinkable deeds of governments and collaborators, and the silence of so many that led to the Holocaust.
In America, when we teach our students about the horrors of the Holocaust and the deadly reign of Adolf Hitler, we tell them, “never again.” Never again will humanity allow such unspeakable horrors to occur. Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party cemented centuries-old anti-Semitism into the everyday consciousness and laws of Germany. Their “Final Solution” was to annihilate global Jewry. Yet it was not only Jews they hated; the Nazis created an entire industry of death, which targeted its killing machinery on Jews, Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, and political dissidents. Few neighbors stood up to defend Nazi targets, let alone save them.
The Holocaust is something very personal to me. My father, a rabbi, was arrested – on Kristalnacht, the unofficial pogrom that many think started the Holocaust – and sent with many of his congregants to prison and then to Buchenwald. He was the lucky one – every other person in his family perished at Auschwitz. As a child of a Holocaust survivor, I have dedicated my life to eradicating anti-Semitism and intolerance with a sense of urgency and passion that only my father could give me. Austria’s program and your collective service during these past twenty (20) years help keep the lessons of the past alive and make history accessible to all citizens.
You have a role in helping the world remember, not only what happened, but why—how hate and intolerance transformed neighbors into victims and perpetrators. Rather than get lost in the hatred and sadness of the Holocaust, we must now learn from it, in order to ensure it never happens again. We must advance the lessons of the Holocaust: namely, that evil must be confronted rather than ignored. We must never again allow ignorance and hatred to flourish. To this end, education and dialogue are mandatory first steps to prevent and overcome ignorance and hate. To that end, building museums and memorials allow us to educate citizens everywhere.
World War II ended 67 years ago; recent by any historical measure. Yet despite our consistent and strong exhortations to remember and learn from the past, with each passing day we grow further removed from it. Since the Holocaust, generations – who never experienced the horrors of Nazi Europe – have been born. Soon, we will not have the opportunity to meet survivors, liberators, rescuers, or witnesses and to hear their stories first-hand. Sadly, they are passing on. Because time is not on our side, we must all feel the urgency to impart the memory and lessons of the Holocaust. Those of you who are working in Holocaust museums are helping to keep those memories fresh.
During the Holocaust, we witnessed how good people could become willing executioners. However, we also witnessed resistance from individuals who did the right thing – those people who chose to follow their own moral compasses in the face of incredible danger. Part of educating others about the past, is learning about the Righteous Gentiles and the rescuers. I learned there are over 80 righteous gentiles from Austria. These people of conscience, who were in the heart of Nazi Europe, took risks to help Jews during the Holocaust and gave repeated and substantial assistance to them despite the most egregious of circumstances. While we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Austrian Memorial Holocaust Service, it is also quite fitting that this is also the 100th anniversary of rescuer Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat in Hungary who, with the backing of his government, saved thousands of Hungarian Jews. In fact, I was just in Sweden this past month to take part in their year-long commemoration of the life of Raoul Wallenberg. The Austrian righteous gentiles and Raoul Wallenberg personified conscience, along with other righteous diplomats and ordinary citizens. They risked their lives to save the lives of strangers.
The acts of courage performed by the rescuers, and all the righteous gentiles, are an inspiration to us all to stand up to hate, face it squarely, and call it out. We may, one day, find ourselves confronted with the same choice. Sometimes the right choice is not the easy choice. We can learn from these rescuers about what it means to carry out acts that are neither easy nor profitable, but rather are moral. It would have been less mortal risk to turn away. However, people of good conscience could not do that. And I must mention Albania; the only country in the world to save all of its Jews during the Holocaust. Albania, a majority Muslim country, ended up with ten times more Jews at the end of World War II than when it began. It is heartening when governments as well as individuals do the right thing.
Your service is part of the solution, part of the education process. You have the knowledge to educate those around you. I hope that when you eventually return home, you will tell your parents and families, friends and neighbors about what you are learning from this year of service. Sharing your knowledge is needed now as much as ever. For example, a recent Pew Forum report found that, around the world, Jews are increasingly objects of societal discrimination despite official attempts to address anti-Semitism. These attitudes can be found in 75 countries, and is a disproportionately high number considering that Jews make up only .2 percent of the world’s population. What does this mean for us and others of conscience? What else can we do to transform hatred and ignorance into mutual respect and acceptance?
Together, we can teach the values of tolerance by honoring our past and confronting the hatred that still exists in our world today. Where there is hatred born of ignorance, we must teach and inspire. We must expose people to a larger world of ideas as we reach out, especially to youth, so they can see beyond their immediate circumstances. Where there is hatred stirred up by irresponsible leaders, we must call them out. We must answer as strongly as we can – that their messages of hate are totally unacceptable to all people of conscience.
Your service has the potential for a far greater impact than you realize. The time you will have spent in the Holocaust Memorial Service is just the beginning. With that, I would like to thank and congratulate you on the 20th anniversary of the Austrian Holocaust Memorial Service.