HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM GATHERING
by Leo Melamed
October 22, 2004
know the story.
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.
Pearl's last words recorded on the tape were, "My father is Jewish,
my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish."
al-Quaida captors were triumphant. They had, they believed, captured
on tape a scene that would terrify Jews throughout the world.
were very wrong.
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.
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.
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.
but one proviso—that we, the living—remember!
know the story. It is recorded at the Washington Holocaust Museum.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
was I spared from that fate? There is no answer. You think I
if I do then we as a people, we as a nation, we as an ethnic
identity, are doomed—and deservedly so.
mission is to make the world remembers.
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.
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."
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.
there was silence. Where was everyone? Where were the great leaders
of the free world?
silence explodes like an atom bomb on the walls of the Holocaust
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?
when one construction worker is kidnapped in Iraq, there are
headlines around the world—and appropriately so.
was everyone when Jews in the ghettoes were subjected to inhuman
conditions, starvation, disease, terror, freezing cold, diabolical
experimentation, and torture?
were the leaders of the world's great religions? Where was the
Red Cross? There was silence.
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
there was silence.
there are camera crews, protests, marches, headlines and editorials
publicly denouncing the crimes committed in Abu Ghraib—and appropriately
were the headlines then? Where were the protests? Where were
the intellectuals? Where were the writers and poets?
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.
there was silence.
when one Palestinian child is killed in an onslaught by Israeli
soldiers, there is a front page picture in the New York Times—and
was the New York Times then?
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."
right. Let there be no silence. The Holocaust Museum guarantees
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.
was silence from Secretary of State Cordell Hull when he refused
to give Jews entry visas to the U.S.
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.
was silence when the State Department asked American Rabbi Stephen
Wise, who also received the report, to refrain from announcing
was silence in August of 1942 when the State Department delayed
publicizing reports of genocide.
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.
was silence as Jewish world organizations pleaded with President
Roosevelt to bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz.
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."
Holocaust Museum spares no one in pointing a finger of guilt
at the silence.
Wiesel remembers. His memory of Auschwitz is searing, his words,
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."
words have meaning only if we the living—never forget!
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.
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.
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.
know the story. It should be recited at every Passover.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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!
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:
we the living, never forget!
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