Administrator Samantha Power at the USAID Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day

Speeches Shim

Thursday, April 28, 2022

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you, Steven, for that kind introduction. Along with the rest of the leadership team of the Jewish Affinity Group at USAID, thank you for organizing this moving and timely event.

It’s an honor to be here with Celia Kener, who has graciously agreed to share her story with us today, and I look forward to introducing her more thoroughly later on.

Welcome also to Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. We are grateful for your work fighting anti-Semitism and injustice in communities across our nation.

And welcome to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. We are deeply grateful for your decades of leadership of the world’s largest LGBTQIA+ synagogue and its powerful advocacy for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and expressions.

On November 21, 1945, Robert H. Jackson delivered the opening statement in the Nuremberg Trials. Standing in front of the International Military Tribunal at the Palace of Justice, Jackson—Chief of Counsel for the United States—promised the court that they would convict Nazi defendants by their own words.

Jackson was able to make this promise because of the sheer amount of evidence generated by the Nazis themselves—evidence recovered by American forces during the liberation of Europe in 1945.

These records included the Wannsee Conference Protocol—records of a 1942 conference where the Nazis coordinated and expanded their plan to systematically murder 11 million Jews living in Europe. They included photographs and videos, often graphic and proudly shot, of German soldiers committing atrocities against Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. Over the course of 10 months, this evidence helped lead to 161 convictions at the Nuremberg Trials.

That documentation also served to make theHolocaust the best-recorded genocide in history, a morbid title to be sure.

And yet there are those today—77 years after the liberation of the death camps—that deny the realities of the genocide, or the means by which it was perpetrated. Those who, when faced with photographs and records, fiercely question the existence of the gas chambers, or the number of victims, or the systematic, pre-planned nature of the mass murder.

Today, collective memory of the Holocaust is fading. A 2020 survey conducted here in the United States by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany showed that almost two thirds of young adults were not aware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Almost one in ten denied that the Holocaust happened or couldn’t say for sure.

And in New York, home to the country’s largest Jewish population, almost one in five, one in five, believe that Jews caused the Holocaust themselves.

As the number of living survivors dwindles, those who doubt the truth could become ever more prominent, aided and abetted by disinformation spreading like wildfire on social media platforms.

Holocaust denial and distortion threatens Jewish communities around the world—communities long persecuted, often exiled, and still threatened today. And it adds insult to the collective trauma of those who survived, by questioning their integrity and the validity of their lived experience.

But denial, distortion, or ignorance of a genocide doesn’t just affect the communities targeted by that genocide. It threatens every society built on truth, equality, and justice. It makes us question fact until fact loses all meaning. And it leaves us vulnerable to history repeating itself.

That’s why, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we must remember—not just those who survived, fought, and perished, but also how these horrific crimes came to pass.

But we have to remember that before the construction of the gas chambers, the world looked the other way as millions of Jews and millions of others were targeted and persecuted by the Nazis and their collaborators. That includes right here in the United States, even after news of Nazi persecution of Jews had reached the American press.

A 1933 article in Time magazine detailed the Nazi regime’s myth of the danger posed by Jewish citizens—ending with the line, “The Jews are to blame,” that was also featured on the magazine’s cover. And despite years of imprisonment, yellow stars, and nights of broken glass, the U.S. and European countries firmly closed their doors to refugees from Nazi-occupied territories, sometimes scared they were Nazi spies.

The truth is that the Final Solution was, for the Nazis, a culmination of the persecution they were already inflicting upon the Jews of Europe. It was a solution that required inhumanity, yes, but also audacity—audacity that stemmed from almost never having been told “no.” The Nazis had faced few international consequences for their crimes up to that point, and therefore saw no reason to expect consequences for mass murder.

To remember is not simply to light candles and hold ceremonies and recite prayers for the dead, though those traditions are important as well. To truly remember is to show that there are consequences. To stand up when we see atrocities being committed. And to resist not just genocide, but discrimination and injustice in all its forms, before a single life is lost.

Today, Jewish communities are leaders in that mission. Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League resist modern and historical forms of anti-Semitism, while also speaking out against injustices facing other marginalized communities. Museums and archives educate those from all walks of life on the history and reality of the Holocaust.

Around the world, Jewish communities and leaders are strong advocates for refugees, civil liberties, and basic human rights—including right here at USAID, where they work to strengthen food security, provide clean water and basic necessities, and empower women and families to support themselves and their communities.

But the lessons of the Holocaust extend beyond a simple commitment to human dignity and justice. And so, too, must our responsibility.

Few of us here today have experienced genocide, but all of us must remember it. For, to borrow a phrase from the late, great Elie Wiesel, “we all are the privileged custodians of memory.”

Today, we honor the families broken and the lives lost, those who rebelled in the camps and the ghettos… and those who lived. We speak out against those who would erase the realities of the Holocaust, and defame its survivors and their descendants. And we stand with Jewish communities around the world as they battle anti-Semitism and fight injustice on behalf of themselves and those around them.

To be able to remember is, indeed, a privilege—one forcibly taken from those who lost their lives. And we have a responsibility to use that privilege… to make certain that six million lives need never be remembered again.

And now, it is my great honor to introduce Celia Kener. Born in Lvov, Poland—a city we now know as Lviv, Ukraine—in 1935, Celia was only six years old when her father was drafted into the Russian army. She and her mother were taken in by a Polish neighbor, who hid them in the family barn until they were forced into Lvov’s Jewish ghetto.

Celia’s mother was selected for a labor camp, and though she was allowed to visit her family every now and then, she remained terrified for her life and the well-being of her children. Desperate, Celia’s mother promised her daughter to a childless Catholic couple, in case she did not survive.

Though her family was eventually reunited and immigrated to the United States in 1949, Celia’s experiences have shaped a life of advocacy and Holocaust education. Today, she travels the country as a speaker, educating those young and old about the Holocaust.

In an era where fewer and fewer children will ever hear firsthand accounts of the Holocaust, Celia’s advocacy is all the more important today. And we are deeply grateful for her presence and perspective.

Celia, welcome.

Last updated: August 05, 2022

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