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WASHINGTON, DC—A city accustomed to House and Senate hearings witnessed a different kind of testimony on Monday.
Father Patrick Desbois, president of the Yahad-In Unum (YIU) Association of France, has undertaken the mission to investigate the mass executions of Jews and Roma between 1941 and 1944. He has located the graves of more than 1 million Jews at 68 sites throughout Eastern Europe.
Desbois spoke on Monday at the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC, during the government’s marking of United Nations’ International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.
“These killings took place in public,” he said. “It was like a show. Children were taken to watch the shooting of the Jews.”
At the State Department’s George C. Marshall Auditorium, Ambassador Michael Kozak—interim Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism—led a panel discussion on history’s implications for future behavior. The panel also included Father Desbois, Suzanne Brown-Fleming of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Ambassador Douglass Davidson, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues; and Victoria Holt, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the State Department.
Brown-Fleming, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the national Holocaust museum, said the former Soviet Union’s demise made thousands of Holocaust documents accessible. The museum has rescued many. Since 2005, it has worked with Yahad-In Unum to raise greater awareness about the Eastern European tragedies.
“Scholars are reconstructing the crimes,” Brown-Fleming said. “This was a personal Holocaust: neighbor to neighbor. What is the core moral dilemma of the Holocaust? Do I become a participant, a killer, or a rescuer?”
“Every victim was killed by someone—it was a personal crime,” she said.
“Looking at the contemporary examples of Holocaust by bullet, we are convinced that we cannot build democracy on [unrecognized] mass graves,” Brown-Fleming continued. “Killing by machine guns in the forest is being repeated in Darfur, in Cambodia. Bullets, not camps, are the repeated method of death.”
The State Department’s Holt said the challenge regarding the Holocaust and contemporary genocide “is to channel the horror into the productive.”
“Building a culture of remembrance helps prevent repetition of the crimes of the past,” Brown-Fleming said. “The lessons of history must be learned and applied to prevent its repeat.”
Holt believes that process has begun, but that further action must be taken.
“It is the nature of the diplomatic culture to be cautious… the first step is to bring the stories to the front, making it public… The challenge is to learn to handle the crisis before it occurs,” she said. “Not every country or every group turns to violence.”
Father Desbois’s research is extensive and growing. He is preparing an interactive Google map designed to tell the story of each Eastern European village where executions took place.
“The big difference now is that you can take a picture and expose it…. There is a new generation [of people] who want to know, both inside and outside of Europe, including in China and India,” he said. “They understand the implications of the lessons of the Holocaust.”
The UN in 2005 designated Jan. 27 as a yearly memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust—6 million Jews and millions of other victims of Nazi Germany during World War II. The date honors the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps.
On Sunday in Rome, the German-born Pope Benedict XVI, appearing at his window in the Vatican, called for vigilance against racism.
“The memory of this immense tragedy, which above all struck so harshly the Jewish people, must represent for everyone a constant warning so that the horrors of the past are not repeated, so that every form of hatred and racism is overcome, and that respect for, and dignity of, every human person is encouraged,” the Pope said of the Holocaust.
“The United States, along with the international community, resolves to stand in the way of any tyrant or dictator who commits crimes against humanity, and stay true to the principle of ‘Never Again,’” U.S. President Barack Obama said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a clear link to Iran’s nuclear efforts and the Nazis’ efforts to annihilate the Jews.
“Anti-Semitism has not disappeared and—to our regret—neither has the desire to destroy a considerable part of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. They exist and they are strong,” Netanyahu said.
On Jan. 25, speaking in a voice fraught with emotion at the UN General Assembly in New York, Israeli ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor proclaimed, “The loss [of the Holocaust] is unimaginable… the riches lost to the world untold. But, their spirit lives on, their dreams never died… Nothing can break the 5,000-year-old chain of Jewish history.”
Looking to his own emotions, Prosor noted that he is a father of the generation for whom it is “incomprehensible to comprehend what it meant to be a Jew in the face of evil” without the protection provided by the Jewish state.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum’s “Righteous Among the Nations” recognition for gentiles who helped save Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, greeting those gathered in memory of the victims of the Holocaust on Jan. 25, said “the examples of these brave men and women demonstrate the capacity of humankind for remarkable good even in the darkest days…”
Ban also stressed the need to “work against hatred and prejudice to prevent future genocide.”
Prosor acknowledged the sparks that lit humanity’s darkest hours—Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Italian construction worker Lorenzo Perrone, and the Japanese Consul in Lithuania, Sugihara, calling their actions “inspiring stories that must become guide posts for the international community… There is much work to do in a world… where hate is met with silence.”
The state of Israel is a living, breathing monument to survival, stated the ambassador. “Am Yisrael chai!” he extolled.
Also recognized was the courageous Irena Sandler, a Polish Catholic nurse who saved 2,500 children, and Eli Zborowski, who survived the war in hiding and was the driving force behind the creation of Yad VaShem’s Valley of the Communities as well as a founder of the American Society of Yad VaShem.
Mordecai Palodiel, a Holocaust survivor who spoke at the UN, was 6 years old when he and his family escaped to Switzerland. He was instrumental in gaining acknowledgement for the non-Jewish heroes who risked their lives to save at least one Jewish person. Palodiel helped develop the Garden of the Righteous. Fifty years after its initiation, some 25,000 names are inscribed in its stones, each representing a commitment to help others in need despite the risk to themselves.
“We have an obligation to pass on to future generations the legacy of the Righteous Among the Nations and the lesson of the spark of goodness the individual can arouse within himself,” he said.