U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Days of Remembrance Commemoration


APRIL 8, 2021

Thank you, Sara.

It’s an honor to be part of this Days of Remembrance Yom HaShoah commemoration.

A survivor of Auschwitz wrote that after Jews were led into the gas chambers, the steel doors were sealed, and the gas was turned on, they had only three minutes to live.

And in those minutes, they – quote – “found enough strength to dig their fingernails into the walls and scratch in the words, ‘Never forget!’” Never forget.

Their final living act was to warn us. To tell us to remember.

Why is it that we must remember? We remember to honor the lives of the six million Jews, as well as the Roma and Sinti, Slavs, disabled persons, LGBTQ+ individuals, and many others, who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.

We remember to recognize the innate dignity of those killed and those who survived – something their killers sought to strip away with each dehumanizing act.

We remember that before those people were victims, they were girls and boys, women and men, with distinct lives and hopes.

They had unique ways of walking and speaking and laughing.

As we saw in the footage shared, they ice-skated, and sat on their parents’ shoulders, and ate picnics outside.

And we remember not only what happened, but also how it was allowed to happen.

We remember to look at the institutions and societies we’re part of – and to understand better what they did and did not do.

We remember to learn.

And we learn so that we do not repeat.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum currently has an exhibit called “Americans and the Holocaust.”

One story it highlights is about a man at the State Department named Breckenridge Long. He was appointed in 1939 by President Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Special War Problems Division, a unit created after Hitler invaded Poland. Long oversaw immigration and refugee policy for countries impacted by the war, including the issuing of visas.

He had immense power to help those being persecuted. Yet as the Nazis began to systematically round up and execute Jews, Long made it harder and harder for Jews to be granted refuge in the United States.

He established onerous security checks, claiming they were necessary to prevent enemy spies from infiltrating the U.S., even though there was no evidence that refugees posed that risk.

Long didn’t hide what he was doing. He wrote it up in official cables. One from June 1940 read – quote – “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”

Postpone and postpone and postpone. As the Nazis continued to kill and kill and kill.

People working desperately to get Jews out of Europe didn’t see Long’s cable, but they felt its impact.

Margaret Jones, an American Quaker trying to help Jews escape from Vienna wrote this after a dispiriting meeting with the U.S. Consul in Zurich – quote – “We cannot continue to let these tragic people go on hoping that if they comply with every requirement, if they get all the special documents required…they may just possibly be the lucky ones to get visas, when we know that practically no one is granted visas in Germany today.”

And yet Jews went on hoping and trying, even as only a tiny fraction were granted visas.

Assistant Secretary Long did still worse. He blocked cables with reports of the mass killing, which would have increased pressure for America to take in more Jews.

And he lied to Congress. He told them the State Department was doing everything in its power to rescue Jews from Europe, and that the U.S. had admitted 580,000 Jewish refugees. We had only taken in around 138,000 Jews.

It is important to note that Long did not act alone. Others at the State Department helped him draft and implement his policies. And still others sat silently while Long created more restrictions and delays.

But some did push back. A group of determined officials at the Treasury Department came up with payments to evacuate thousands of Jews in Romania and France who faced execution.

After countless obstructions by officials like Long, they decided to appeal to President Roosevelt.

They produced a document titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which laid out in devastating detail the State Department’s refusal to help Jews.

The authors wrote – quote – “State Department officials have not only failed to use the government machinery at their disposal to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this Governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.”

They warned – quote – “This government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.”

Six days later, Roosevelt announced the creation of the War Refugee Board, to pursue “the immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.”

And the board went on to rescue tens of thousands of Jews and help hundreds of thousands more.

But by then, more than four million Jews had already been murdered.

From 1933 to 1943, America’s immigration quotas permitted accepting 1.5 million people. We admitted fewer that 480,000 people. More than a million slots unfilled, as thousands of Jews were murdered every day.

“Never forget,” the words scratched into the walls of the gas chamber tell us.

I hear that warning, as the current Secretary of State, leading the institution where Breckenridge Long and others once used the levers of government to do harm.

We must never forget the way individuals can make entire systems, from top to bottom, tilt toward the inhumane.

How the sanitized language of cables, briefings, and regulations can be used to turn away people we should help.

And we must not forget that individuals, armed with the truth and their convictions, can use those same mechanisms to save lives.

The Treasury officials who found a way to help evacuate thousands of Jews.

Margaret Jones, who submitted one visa application after another in a system rigged to say “no,” because she understood what it would mean to get just one “yes.”

The American GI’s who put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis and whose eventual victory saved so many lives.

Lives like that of the teenage boy who saw those words scratched into the walls of the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Convict B-1713. That boy was my stepfather, Samuel Pisar.

He had twice been sent to those gas chambers and managed to escape his death sentence – the second time by picking up a pail and brush and pretending he’d been sent to scrub the floors.

We live in a time where anti-Semitism is again on the rise, in America and around the world.

And as always, hatred of the Jews tends to go hand in hand with hatred of others – including LGBTQ+ people, people of color, people with disabilities, and refugees.

When hateful ideology rises, violence is never far behind, as recent attacks on Asian Americans have illustrated.

A few weeks ago, the Director of National Intelligence issued a report that racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists present the most lethal threat of domestic violent extremism in America today.

And it’s no surprise that many of these extremists deny the Holocaust.

These things are connected.

So we must stay vigilant.

My stepfather wrote of his time in the concentration camps – quote – “More than any barbed-wire fence with the searchlights and the machine-gun towers around us, the impossibility to glimpse some ray of salvation was the ultimate source of despair…What was happening in the outside world? Did anyone out there know what was happening here to us? Did they care?…And America, America, are you still there?”

For my stepfather, America would answer his question, in the GI that pulled him up into an American tank, which he called “the womb of freedom.”

Yet there are many places, right now, where people are asking those same questions.

People imprisoned in modern-day internment camps because of what they worship or believe.

Or tortured for speaking up against tyranny.

Or persecuted simply because of who they are.

On this day, we remember the hands clawing into the walls and the warning they left.

They implore us not only to remember what happened to the Jews, and the inherent dignity of those we lost, but also to learn from those who stood by and those who stood up.

So that when people again ask: America, are you still there?

We will be among those who are able to answer: Yes, we are still here.