US HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM GATHERING

Remarks by Leo Melamed
October 22, 2004
Detroit, Michigan

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You know the story.

In February of 2002, Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was murdered by al-Quaida terrorists in Pakistan. Daniel was 38 years of age. Before he was killed, his captors video-taped his last moments alive so that they could use it as propaganda.

Daniel Pearl's last words recorded on the tape were, "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish."

The al-Quaida captors were triumphant. They had, they believed, captured on tape a scene that would terrify Jews throughout the world.

They were very wrong.

Daniel Pearl's words, "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish," will live forever. Not to terrify but to fortify. It would have had a similar effect on every ethnic identity, whether Irish, or Sudanese, or Italian.

No differently than the utterance of "Shmaa Israel" as the last spoken words by countless of Jews throughout the generations who faced similar immediate death at the hand of an enemy. No differently, than the words spoken centuries before by the Jews trapped at Masada ---- or at Auschwitz.

Daniel's words serve as a symbol, as an emblem, as a crest of honor. They bind us together as a people. They strengthen our resolve. They give us identity. They fuel the undying torch of our existence.

With but one proviso—that we, the living—remember!

You know the story. It is recorded at the Washington Holocaust Museum.

Six million of our people were murdered by the Nazis in cold blood. They went to the gas chambers for the same reason Daniel Pearl was beheaded—because their father was Jewish, their mother was Jewish, and they were Jewish. That could translate to any ethnic group or identity.

You know the story. One and a half million Jewish children were massacred—one and a half million children—the next generation of our nation. Some of them too young to understand exactly why.

But for the grace of God I could have been among them. I was just seven years old when the Germans marched into my home town of Bialystok, Poland at the onset of World War II. They captured me, my parents, my family members, and the entirety of the Jews of Europe. It was a trap of unspeakable dimension.

When they came for my father, my mother's hand trembled as she held mine fast in hers. We were standing in our small kitchen, me, my mother, my grandmother and three German Gestapo agents. I was small so I could hardly see above their boots. But I could hear their voices. My mother's fear transferred itself through her hand to my body like an electric current. It seared my memory forever.

"Vu ist er?"--- Where is he? One Gestapo agent demanded loudly of my Mother in German. I looked up at her face. Tears welled in her eyes, but she did not cry. Instead, she tightened her grip on my hand and responded quietly, "Ich veis nicht." It was the truth. We did not know where he was.

My father, a member of the Bialystok City Council—the only Jew on the Council—had left Bialystok together with all council members in the middle of one starless night-they left to prevent being used as hostages by the Nazis—as was the Nazi custom. I remember my mother waking and dressing me. "We are going to say goodbye to your father," she quietly told me. I asked no questions. By then I already knew that there were no answers. No answers when I asked why bombs had destroyed the houses on our street, why some of my friends had suddenly disappeared, why we were attacked. I already knew that there were no answers to my questions. The world had been turned upside-down.

I remember my father hugging me. I remember him saying that I should take care of my mother. I remember her tears which she desperately tried to hide from me. Then he was gone and we raced back to our house as gunfire echoed through the empty streets.

But, of course, I was the lucky one. Miraculously, my father and mother and I found each other. At my father's instructions, after Stalin made a devil's deal with Hitler, my mother and I took the last train out of Bialystok bound for Wilno—which was suddenly to become Lithuania. The train was squeezed to triple its capacity. A two hour ride that took all night. A train ride that stopped a thousand times, for screams and bombs and gunfire.

For the next two years, we played the deadly game of hide and seek with the Gestapo and KGB, never knowing for certain where the next day would take us—or whether there would be a next day. Our odyssey spanned three continents, and six languages, —as we made our escape through Siberia to Vladivostok—the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad on the furthest East Coast of Russia. From there unto a junk boat bound for Japan.

Our lives were saved courtesy a transit visa at the hand of Chiune Sugihara—the Japanese Counsel General in Lithuania. He saved some 3000 Jews by providing them with transit visas to Japan. A transit visa, you know, just like the one Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman got with Humphrey Bogart's help in the movie-classic "Casablanca."

Chiune Sugihara—one of the world's Righteous—the Japanese Oscar Schindler, who unlike Schindler did not do it for money or slave labor, but in his own words "because even a hunter will safeguard a fallen sparrow."

Sugihara, did it in defiance of the orders of his superiors and was banished for his actions by his government and dishonored by the Foreign Ministry—only later to be reinstated as a national hero, with the Emperor of Japan coming to his birthplace to offer an apology. Today, those 3000 Jewish souls represent over 25,000 descendants.

No one else in my family was that lucky. Nor were any of my childhood friends. On June 27, 1941, every Jew in our neighborhood, every man, women and child, some 800 souls including both my grandmothers and my aunt Bobbl, who I loved as dearly as a child could, were forced into the Bialystoker Grosse Shul—the Great Synagogue of Bialystok, designed in 1908 by renowned architect, Shlome Rabinowicz whose Byzantine dome was famous throughout Europe. The German soldiers shut all of the doors and windows and stood guard no one should escape as the entire structure was hosed down with gasoline and torched. That night the German's soldiers celebrated the event.

Why was I spared from that fate? There is no answer. You think I will forget?

Because if I do then we as a people, we as a nation, we as an ethnic identity, are doomed—and deservedly so.

My mission is to make the world remembers.

I will always remember that during the years 1939 to 1945, the world closed its eyes and shut its ears while an act of monstrous proportion—one that has no equal in the annals of mankind—one that left an indelible blot on human history was inflicted on the Jewish people.

An act so inhuman, so alien to civilization that there was no proper name to describe it. It wasn't until 1944 that Rapheal Lemkin formulated the word for it—genocide: "The systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, religious, political, or ethnic group."

In 1945 two out of every three of the nine million Jews who had lived in the twenty-one European nations when the Nazis came to power in 1933 were dead.

And there was silence. Where was everyone? Where were the great leaders of the free world?

Their silence explodes like an atom bomb on the walls of the Holocaust Museum.

Where were they as an armed force rounded up unarmed innocent Jewish civilians, men, women and children-the very core of our nation, the proud harvest of our 5,000 years of history—family members of many in this room—and under the threat of death forced them into prescribed confinement of ghettoes?

Today, when one construction worker is kidnapped in Iraq, there are headlines around the world—and appropriately so.

Where was everyone when Jews in the ghettoes were subjected to inhuman conditions, starvation, disease, terror, freezing cold, diabolical experimentation, and torture?

Where were the leaders of the world's great religions? Where was the Red Cross? There was silence.

Eichman's plan was activated. Jews who somehow managed to survive the horrors of the ghetto, were systematically rounded up by armed forces—Jews from Warsaw, Kovno, Vilna, Minsk, Bialystok, Lublin, Krakow and a thousand other places—and placed in cattle cars for transport to Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz/Birkenau and so many other extermination centers.

And there was silence.

Today, there are camera crews, protests, marches, headlines and editorials publicly denouncing the crimes committed in Abu Ghraib—and appropriately so.

Where were the headlines then? Where were the protests? Where were the intellectuals? Where were the writers and poets?

In Warsaw the place was called the Umschlagplatz—the intersection of life and death. From there the 500,000 remnants of what was once the most vibrant Jewish center in the world, were forced unto trains for the gas chambers of Treblinka.

And there was silence.

Today, when one Palestinian child is killed in an onslaught by Israeli soldiers, there is a front page picture in the New York Times—and appropriately so.

Where was the New York Times then?

Today there is an inscription at Umschlagplatz. It is from the Book of Job, XVI, 18: "O Earth, Cover Not My Blood, And Let My Cry For Justice Find No Rest."

That's right. Let there be no silence. The Holocaust Museum guarantees us that.

There was silence in May of 1939 as the German transatlantic liner The St. Louis, was refused entry to Cuba or the U.S., its 937 passengers sent back to Europe.

There was silence from Secretary of State Cordell Hull when he refused to give Jews entry visas to the U.S.

There was silence when the State Department received a cable sent by Gerhart Riegner, the representative in Geneva of the World Jewish Congress, confirming Nazi plans for the murder of Europe's Jews. The report was not passed on to the President.

There was silence when the State Department asked American Rabbi Stephen Wise, who also received the report, to refrain from announcing it.

There was silence in August of 1942 when the State Department delayed publicizing reports of genocide.

There was silence when in 1943, Polish courier Jan Karski informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt of reports of mass murder received from Jewish leaders in the Warsaw ghetto.

There was silence as Jewish world organizations pleaded with President Roosevelt to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz.

There was silence when Shmul Zygelbojm—a member of the Warsaw Ghetto's first Jewish council who escaped to London—committed suicide to protest the world's indifference to the Holocaust. His final words addressed to the exiled president of Poland: "I cannot remain silent, nor can I remain alive, while the last remnants of the Jewish people perish in Poland."

The Holocaust Museum spares no one in pointing a finger of guilt at the silence.

Elie Wiesel remembers. His memory of Auschwitz is searing, his words, indelible:

"The beginning, the end: all the world's roads, all the outcries of mankind, lead to this accursed place. Here is the kingdom of night, where God's face is hidden and a flaming sky becomes a graveyard for a vanished people."

Wiesel's words have meaning only if we the living—never forget!

In memory lies our salvation. In memory lies our resolve: Never Again! Never again can genocide be kept silent—no matter what the nationality or ethnic origin. The Committee of Conscience at the Holocaust Museum guarantees that.

Next Passover as you sit down to your Sedar, or Easter dinner, I want you to mention the name Mordechai Anielewicz. He too died because his father was Jewish, his mother was Jewish and he was Jewish.

Mordechai Anielewicz was the twenty-three-year-old commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization who on April 19, 1943 stood fast with his brave contingent of 750 Warsaw Ghetto fighters and faced the onslaught of the powerful German army.

You know the story. It should be recited at every Passover.

On the exact day when Jews throughout the free world were sitting down for their traditional Seder, SS Gruppenfuherer Jurgen Stroop, Commander of the Warsaw occupation forces, led a trained German army into the ghetto to deliver its final liquidation. By then, only 50,000 Jews were left in the Varshever Ghetto. No longer did anyone have illusions about their destiny. Anielewicz's Resistance Fighters—armed with handguns, a few rifles and grenades, iron rods, and Molotov cocktails, some made from light bulbs filled with sulfuric acid—stood ready to greet the foe.

They were prepared to die fighting. Against impossible odds, without military training, the modern Maccabees, were victorious in forcing the invaders to leave the ghetto and regroup. Although the outcome was a foregone conclusion, it took twenty-eight days of intense fighting and the full might of the German Wehrmacht-tanks, artillery, and fighter planes—to firebomb the ghetto and quell its defenders. Not until May 16 could Stroop report: "The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw no longer exists."

Mordechai Anielewicz and the remainder of his resistance fighters, in an act of defiance reminiscent of the rebels at Masada, took their lives in their Mila 18 bunker, rather than be captured by the Nazis.

But before his death Anielewicz sensed the full significance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In his last letter, written on May 8, 1943, two weeks before his death, he wrote: "I feel that great things are happening and that this action which we have dared to take is of enormous value."

His unparalleled bravery, just like Judah Maccabee ages before him, will have meaning for Jews throughout the ages—but only if we the living, never forget. Indeed, news about the uprising inspired Jewish underground resistance elsewhere. There were revolts in more than 60 ghettos and in about 100 regions. Including those well-documented in Kovno, Vilna, Minsk, Bialystok, Lachva, Novogruok, Lublin, and Krakow.

And, ignoring the guard towers, machine guns, searchlights, and vicious dogs, uprisings occurred in death and concentration camps, including those in Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz/Birkenau.

Anielewicz could not possible have known Daniel Pearl. But in death they were brothers. Anielewicz's act will forever remain an exalted flashpoint of pride for Jewish people everywhere, as will Daniel Pearl's, provided only that we the living—never forget!

The Maccabees, Masada, Auschwitz, the railroad tracks, the six million, the million and a half children, the St. Louis, Daniel Pearl's words, Anielewicz's Passover, the Mila 18 bunker—will for eternity serve as a symbol, as an emblem, as a crest of honor—as the undying fuel for the torch of our Jewish existence—with but one proviso:

That we the living, never forget!

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