May 16, 2022
WARSAW, POLAND – Today, Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen visited the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. The Museum showcases the important history of Jews in Poland over the past thousand years and stands directly across from the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, which commemorates the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Secretary Yellen delivered remarks and laid a wreath at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
Remarks As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you for being here with me today. I’m honored to be at this important site. This museum not only bears witness to one of humanity’s darkest chapters but also celebrates hundreds of years of vibrant Polish Jewish culture.
Being here today is personal to me. My father’s family immigrated to the United States from Sokołów Podlaski, just over 50 miles from where we stand now.
The town to which I trace my roots has a tragic yet familiar history. During the Holocaust, nearly the entire Jewish population, including much of my family, was deported or murdered. The Nazis destroyed the town’s cultural landmarks, and the Jewish cemetery was vandalized. Today, Sokołów Podlaski’s Jewish community is a fraction of what it once was.
Yet, the region where my relatives lived was also home to resistance. Eastern Poland was a hub for groups like the Polish resistance movement, a brave opposition who – in the face of insurmountable odds and almost unthinkable risk – stood up to evil. As this museum reminds us, the story of the Jews in Poland is not just one of tragedy; it is a story of bravery and perseverance.
That is part of the legacy I am here today to honor: taking action to confront evil. And it is a legacy that is also at the core of the Treasury Department.
In the spring of 1940, a time when the United States still held an official position of neutrality in World War II, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau persuaded President Roosevelt to sign an Executive Order freezing the assets of Denmark and Norway. The Order made it impossible for the Nazis to capture overseas assets of countries that they were invading. With this, Morgenthau launched what he called the “unseen front” of the war, a critical but largely unrecognized set of economic actions that damaged the Nazis’ ability to fund their encroachment into other nations.
And, in the face of resistance from other arms of government, Morgenthau also convinced Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board. The Board worked to rescue Jews from occupied territories and provide relief to those in hiding and in concentration camps, ultimately saving tens of thousands of lives.
The lesson of Morgenthau’s decisive actions is the lesson of Sokołów Podlaski and the lesson of many exhibits in this museum: We must use the tools at our disposal to fight oppression. And that lesson must be applied today.
A few hundred miles to our East lies another place where people are bravely fighting for their freedom. My thoughts continue to be with the people of Ukraine as they fight back against Putin’s brutal invasion into their homeland.
Putin’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine require that we think about what we can do to confront brutality. Almost three months into this unjustified war, the Polish people have been the model of stepping up to help in a time of need. Your country has rolled out the welcome mat, taking in over three million Ukrainian refugees.
We at Treasury are also doing what we can to ensure that Putin’s brutal war is met with fierce resistance internationally. The United States and more than 30 of our partners have imposed unprecedented financial pressure measures on the Russian Federation and its leadership. We are firm in our resolve to hold Russia accountable and to strengthen the hand of the Ukrainian people at every turn.
This moment calls for us to step up and do our part. I’m grateful to those who have introduced me to this moving museum, and I’ll continue to take these lessons of the past with me as we work toward a better future. Thank you very much.