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Remembrance and Action: 71 Years After the Liberation of Auschwitz

February 2, 2016

Auschwitz at LiberationA doctor, center, with the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army walks with a group of survivors at the entrance to the newly liberated Auschwitz in January 1945



Auschwtiz 71st Anniversary LiberationAuschwitz survivors walk with others through the main gate of the former Auschwitz Concentration Camp on January 27th, 2016

January 27th, 2016 marked the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army on January 27th, 1945. Eighty former Auschwitz prisoners gathered on the former grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau and were greeted by Andrej Duda, President of the Republic of Poland. The theme of this year’s commemorations was “Returns”, explained by Piotr Cywinski, director of the Auschwitz Museum, “Remembering all the victims, in a special way, during the upcoming anniversary, we want to mention people who, despite enormous trauma, attempted to return to normal life.” However, despite triumphant stories of lives rebuilt after the Holocaust, for many the anniversary proceedings were overshadowed by the ways in which the roots of the Holocaust still echo in the present.

In the aftermath of the death of four French Jews at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel during 2015. In 2013, less than 3,300 French Jews moved to Israel. This influx of immigration to Israel, known as aliyah, is credited to security concerns as well as hopes for freedom of expression, such as wearing the Jewish religious skullcap, known as a kippa, in public. A concern about the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, highlighted by the attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 as well as the Hyper Cacher supermarket, has caused French Jews to also seek a new life closer to home, such as in London. The 71st Anniversary highlights concern over present day anti-Semitism as well as questions of how genocide, even beyond the Holocaust context, continues into the 21st century. In April 2012, President Obama visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., emphasizing that genocide prevention is central to his administration and calling for the establishment of a new government body called the Atrocity Prevention Board. In his speech, Obama stated that “Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing.” Why then, even with an Atrocity Prevention Board, has Obama and his administration failed to act while Civil War and atrocities rage on in Syria?

On January 27th, in honor of the 71st anniversary, Obama gave remarks at the Israeli Embassy in D.C. honoring the inclusion of four individuals into the Righteous Among the Nations, a honorific title used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocast. His speech represented for some a mending of foreign relations between the two countries, in the wake of arguments over the Iran nuclear deal and failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It represents also a benchmark of the legacy the Obama administration will leave in regards to lessons of tolerance and action against present acts of anti-Semitism:

Even as the Holocaust is unique, a crime without parallel in history, the seeds of hate that gave rise to the Shoah — the ignorance that conspires with arrogance, the indifference that betrays compassion — those seeds have always been with us. They have found root across cultures, and across faiths, and across generations. The ambassador mentioned the story of Cain and Abel. It’s deep within us. Too often, especially in times of change, especially in times of anxiety and uncertainty, we are too willing to give into a base desire to find someone else — someone different — to blame for our struggles.

Here, tonight, we must confront the reality that around the world, anti-Semitism is on the rise.  We cannot deny it.  When we see some Jews leaving major European cities — where their families have lived for generations — because they no longer feel safe; when Jewish centers are targeted from Mumbai to Overland Park, Kansas; when swastikas appear on college campuses — when we see all that and more, we must not be silent. 

Certainly government has a responsibility.  As President, I’ve made sure that the United States is leading the global fight against anti-Semitism.  And it’s why, with Israel and countries around the world, we organized the first United Nations General Assembly meeting on anti-Semitism.  It’s why we’ve urged other nations to dedicate a special envoy to this threat, as we have. 

And finally, all of us have a responsibility to speak out, and to teach what’s right to our children, and to examine our own hearts.  That’s the lesson of the Righteous we honor today — the lesson of the Holocaust itself:   Where are you?  Who are you?  That’s the question that the Holocaust poses to us.  We have to consider even in moments of peril, even when we might fear for our own lives, the fact that none of us are powerless.  We always have a choice.  And today, for most of us, standing up against intolerance doesn’t require the same risks that those we honor today took.  It doesn’t require imprisonment or that we face down the barrel of a gun.  It does require us to speak out. It does require us to stand firm.  We know that evil can flourish if we stand idly by.

1,725,700 people visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in 2015, far exceeding the record of 1,534,000 set in 2014. As I mentioned in a post last November, the act of remembering seems for many to be the primary reason to visit the former Nazi Concentration Camp. However, Obama’s words from 2012 still ring true, “Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing.” Coupled with his present statement that “government has a responsibility” in regards to anti-Semitism, the question still stands, how can we use remembrance to inspire action?

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