Would you or I have shown the same courage, humanity and enduring spirit? That was the question I asked on Sunday, April 28 at the Holocaust Museum’s 20th Anniversary dinner. I was honored to receive the Elie Wiesel Award on behalf of the World War II veterans who defeated Nazi power and liberated the concentration camps. Many of them were in the audience, as well as hundreds of concentration camp survivors.
This magnificent award gave me the opportunity to reflect on our veterans’ bravery, but also on the many Jews who saved the lives of other Jews during the Holocaust.
Chairman Bernstein, Vice Chairman Bolton, Elie Wiesel, distinguished veterans and survivors – I am honored to accept this award on behalf of the World War II veterans. It is especially meaningful that it bears the name of Elie Wiesel.
I am also pleased to be here this evening to help celebrate the Holocaust Museum’s 20th anniversary. A remarkable set of accomplishments have been achieved in the last two decades. And what an appropriate place to think about what happened nearly seventy years ago and to reflect on what it means today.
After the terrorist attacks in Boston much has been written on why, in the face of the explosion, some people rushed in to help while others ran away. It has been rightly pointed out that no one can really know what he or she would do until faced with a crisis. Would one rise to the occasion or back away?
In April of 1945, it was a crucial period at Allied headquarters as General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, was engrossed in decisions about Berlin and other crucial matters. On the morning of the 12, Eisenhower visited the salt mines in Germany where the Nazis had hidden stolen art work. Later that evening he received the news that Franklin Roosevelt had died. As Eisenhower wrote in Crusade in Europe:
“The same day, I saw my first horror camp [Ohrdruf]. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality… Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock. I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify first-hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda. Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through with the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
Dwight Eisenhower showed extraordinary presence of mind. Instinctively he could imagine, even in the pressure of the moment, that someday — at some distant time— there would be people who might try to deny such heinous crimes. What would you or I have done at such a moment? Most people at the time thought his insistence on documenting the camps was unnecessary. Yet Eisenhower’s immediate response has had a lasting, historic impact. Imagine today trying to counter the Holocaust deniers, including Iranian President Ahmadinejad, without having the historic evidence Eisenhower demanded.
My father, John S.D. Eisenhower, was serving in the European Theater at that time. He saw his father the day after his visit to Ohrdruf. Based on Ike’s account, a few days later John visited Buchenwald to bear witness as well.
A month later, on June 18, General Eisenhower held a press conference at the Pentagon. The press corps asked him about his determination to shine a light on the atrocities.
“When I found the first camps like that I think I never was so angry in my life,” Eisenhower replied. “The bestiality displayed there… and the horrors I really would not even want to describe… I think people should know about such things…I think the people at home ought to know what they are fighting for…”
From North Africa and Italy, to the beaches of Normandy through France and into Germany, those armed forces fought hard, demonstrating legandary courage and tenacity. At the same press conference, Eisenhower spoke in emotional terms about the sacrifice of the American fighting men. He told of the more than 10,000 of them who had volunteered to fill out important divisions before the decisive Battle of the Bulge. 2,600 of them were American blacks.
“These are America’s fighting men!!” They did their duty, the general said, with “cheerfulness under conditions of unbelievable hardship.”
What would you and I have done in their places? And would we have responded, when the call for volunteers had gone out? We honor our veterans, and salute those who are here with us tonight.
There are many other people from all walks of life who exhibited uncommon bravery during the war. But there is a specific group that has not been given the attention it so richly deserves. They are the Jews in the ghettos and in the camps who risked their lives to save other Jews. I was moved by a recent story in the Washington Post by Menachem Z. Rosensaft. He told his mother’s story – of the tragic loss of her parents, her husband and small son in the Holocaust. Despite this, Hadassah Rosensaft never gave up. While at Bergen-Belsen she and her other campmates found countless ways to save lives—by stealing food, smuggling medicine, and nurturing the orphaned children. She and others like her gave those terrified children not just songs and comfort – but more importantly – hope.
Hadassah Rosensaft and a handful of campmates helped to keep as many as 149 children alive throughout the winter and spring of 1945.
Later, she reflected on the inmates of Bergen-Belsen:
“For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, and nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”
What would you and I have done? With courage and conviction, survivors of the Holocaust rebuilt their lives, and those same people worked hard to help make the United States the free world’s global superpower.
I cannot say it strongly enough: this Museum is more than a place for the remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and those who liberated them. It is a monument to the indomitable human spirit.