The Obermayer German Jewish History Awards
January 23, 2008
Remarks by Sara Bloomfield
delivered by Klaus Müller,
Western European representative of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
President Momper, President Obermayer, distinguished guests, and most especially our honorees to whom we pay tribute tonight, it is a privilege to join you for this wonderful occasion. I want to offer my heartfelt congratulations to each of the awardees for what you have done to restore, preserve and celebrate the memories and traditions of the once-vibrant German Jewish community. Your actions are a most extraordinary memorial to the victims of the Holocaust-keeping alive and maintaining communal traditions and memories, which is exactly what the six million would have done had they themselves lived.
Of course, they did not. But that is where memory of a different sort comes in. It would appear that the memory of the six million also resides in the hearts and minds of the six honorees. For they are being honored not because they responded to an assignment or entered some contest, but because they were driven by some personal quest or inner motivation to preserve aspects of Germany's Jewish history. We honor them for both what they did and why they did it.
The late Daniel Boorstin, the former Librarian of the United States Congress, once said that "trying to plan for the future without knowing the past is like trying to plant cut flowers." I realize that next week is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but I think it would also be worth reflecting for moment that 2008 is the 90th anniversary of the end of "the war to end all wars." As we all know, without World War I, there would have been no second war and no Holocaust.
I recently traveled to Flanders to see some of the military cemeteries from that war that dot the beautiful Belgian countryside. Tyne Cot Cemetery is the largest military cemetery on the continent, with almost 12,000 soldiers buried there. The cemetery belongs to the British Commonwealth. Yet, walking among the graves, many un-named, I found the graves of a few German soldiers. And, when I inquired, I found that because these soldiers had fallen there, there was a decision to let some be buried there as "act of reconciliation."
I thought of that when I read about the inspiring work of the individuals we are here to honor tonight. For there is reconciliation that is only about gestures and symbols, although symbolism is indeed important. But reconciliation must also be genuine, meaningful and enduring.
But any optimism of 1918 was horribly misplaced as we know. And now, nine decades later, having endured an even more disastrous war and the Holocaust, mankind is poised at the ominous dawn of a new century.
And that is what I would like to talk a little about tonight. For the Holocaust has become a pivotal event, a lens through which we look back and ahead. For Germany, Holocaust memory is something very particular-tied forever to its history, memory, identity, and future. As it should be.
But I lead an American institution to the Holocaust that sits on the National Mall in Washington, and many would say, why? Why does such an institution exist? What is Holocaust memory in America?
The idea for our Museum began in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter asked Elie Wiesel to chair a commission to study the idea of an American national memorial to the Holocaust. After a year, this Presidential Commission concluded that a memorial alone was not enough, that it had to be a teaching institution, because they believed that the purpose of remembrance in America should be as much about the future as the past. So the commission called for the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - and they described it as a "living" memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. And today, describing our mission as a "living" memorial, the Museum teaches the history of the Holocaust in the hope that we will encourage leaders and citizens to confront hatred, prevent genocide, promote human dignity and strengthen democracy.
Our Museum is located on the National Mall in Washington, in the heart of what is called America's civic landscape. Situated between our monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the Museum is a powerful statement about the importance and fragility of democracy. At once entrance, visitors see the words of Thomas Jefferson-perhaps the most famous sentence in the world - "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." The other entrance of our Museum is near the Smithsonian Institution, which celebrates human achievement, making our institution a sobering counterpoint about the horrific capacities of human accomplishment. So our institution is seen in the context of both American history and values, and we have designed the Museum, both architecturally and programmatically, to reinforce that context.
The Museum balances the presentation of large historical events with stories of individuals. We devote substantial space to the years of Nazi rule before World War II so that visitors learn about the incremental persecutions and the responses by individuals, institutions and governments in those early years. We give special emphasis to America's opportunities to respond and her tragic failure to do so until the liberation of the camps so that visitors understand our own nation's complicity. We also show those victims who resisted their oppressors through various forms of resistance and those bystanders who risked their lives to save a fellow human being. As you can tell, if there is any theme, other than the historical events themselves, it is the theme of personal choice and responsibility. Our founding director once said, I created a Museum "about bystanders for bystanders."
And we do all of this with authenticity, restraint, and an absence of sentimentality. We do so to avoid any manipulation of our visitors-out of respect for them and most crucially out of respect for the victims. The Museum is, after all, first and foremost a memorial to the victims.
Over the years, as some have argued about how best to preserve and present Holocaust history, some people have asked what sounds like a startling question: Who owns the Holocaust? As you know, Germany underwent an intense debate about its memorial, and appropriately so.
Well, the question may be starting and maybe it is not even the right question. But, the answer is surely not our Museum, the curators, or the historians. The first and most important answer is that if the Holocaust belongs to anyone, it belongs to the victims. As the brilliant author and survivor Primo Levi noted, the real victims did not live to tell their story, and therefore the rest of us will never really understand Holocaust. But surely the Holocaust is theirs. It also belongs to the survivors.
However, I would, say that in some sense we hope that visitors to our Museum will "own" this history. By that I mean, the obligation of this history -that they will own the problem of the Holocaust, the problem of genocide, and the problem of personal responsibility.
Elie Wiesel's Presidential Commission on the Holocaust explicitly called for the Museum to be a place of transformation, a place that would "instill caution, fortify restraint, and protect against future evil or indifference." In fact, they said that "a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past."
As a living memorial, the Museum is not an authentic site like Auschwitz but it was created as a site of conscience-and imbued with authenticity, a site where we challenge our visitors to become witnesses and take action.
Our central gathering place in the heart of the Museum is called the Hall of Witness. Engraved on its walls are a mere four words from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Isaiah: "You are my witnesses."
On April 15, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, having forced himself to be an eyewitness at the Buchenwald subcamp at Ohrdruf, wrote to General George C. Marshall: "The things I saw beggar description The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were overpowering I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.'"
Like Eisenhower, the Museum admonishes us not to look away. At the heart of our mission lies this fundamental conviction: that bearing witness to the unimaginable is our only hope for imagining a way beyond it.
And imagining a way beyond it is crucial because the Museum is about history in one sense, but also about human nature in the larger sense. Also present at Buchenwald was Edward R. Murrow, the prominent American journalist, who, having seen the camp at liberation, reported that he had seen there the news about mankind and that the news was not good.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan, speaking at the site of the future Museum, eloquently observed: "We who did not go their way owe them this. We must make sure that their deaths have posthumous meaning. We must make sure that from now until the end of days all humankind stares this evil in the face and only then can we be sure it will never arise again."
And yet, when the Museum opened, ethnic cleansing was raging in Bosnia, and just one year later Rwanda experienced the fastest genocide in human history. And today we witness genocide in Darfur.
After the Holocaust, "Never Again" was the stated resolve of humanity. There were genocide conventions, human rights movements, new refugee laws, and more. But humanity has failed in this aspiration. The Museum itself is part of that aspiration, along the lines of the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam - the ongoing effort to repair the world. The world is always in need of repair; the job is never done, no one ever finishes the work, but each of us must keep trying. Our honorees tonight are a fine example of Tikkun Olam.
Elie Wiesel once said, "If we stop remembering, we stop being." This statement contains an implicit question: Can we be moral, can we have a conscience without memory?
If we extend the personal experience to the communal, it would seem logical that, if loss of memory leads to a diminishment of being a whole person, then to forget history means that we, collectively, run the risk of being diminished as a society, or simply put, we become a society of diminished human beings.
When he dedicated the Museum in 1993, President Clinton said, "If this museum can mobilize morality, then those who have perished will thereby gain a measure of immortality."
We at the Museum challenge our visitors: How will you remember? Does your future have to be like the past? What choices will you make?
These are timeless questions. But as we look at this new century, they seem to be painfully timely. Hatred and mass murder are not new to human history. They took on new possibilities in the 20th century, but even more ominous possibilities lie ahead in the 21st. What is truly new about the 21st century?
Among many things, technology and its power to connect, to change, and to destroy.
Technology means that people will be linked in ways previously unimaginable; that the rate of change will constantly accelerate; that our capacity for destruction will be even greater.
As we have begun to see, the internet is becoming more of an authority on "truth", and at the same time the traditional moral authority of institutions and leaders is in decline. This will be a world of increasing uncertainty, uncertainty about what is true and about what is right.
There is no doubt that our world will be more exciting, more innovative and more connected, but also more dangerous. It will offer more possibility and less certainty; more information and less understanding; more knowledge and less truth; more choice and less discernment.
It may be a world with heightened individualism and reduced communal bonds, a world where victimhood is glorified, and a sense of personal duty diminished. A world of rights and entitlements, rather than roles and responsibilities.
As the moral authority of institutions declines, will there be a rising moral authority of the individual to replace it?
With enormous personal
freedom and autonomy, will people feel an obligation to others? As globalization
and the internet create new communities, will they foster enduring bonds
and a sense of a shared humanity?
In a world of easy conformity, who will take risks and display moral courage, such as the rescuers during the Holocaust who were independent thinkers and not influenced by their peers?
How will such a world respond to antisemitism, hate and genocide -or will it? We know that there will always be perpetrators, victims, and bystanders, but will such a world nurture rescuers?
The 21st century will be a time of immense progress. We know that technological progress is inevitable. We know from the Holocaust that moral progress is not.
That is why the memory and lessons of the Holocaust will grow in importance. Because a world where authority, truth and community will be in question, and where the power to destroy will be more accessible, this is a world that will desperately need moral discernment.
A few years ago an American writer Charles Krauthammer wrote in one of his columns, What is the probability that a civilization will not destroy itself once its very intelligence grants it the means of self-destruction? This planet has been around for 4 billion years, intelligent life for perhaps 200,000 [years], weapons of mass destruction for less than 100 [years]. 100 [years]: in the eye of the universe, less than a blink. And yet we already find ourselves on the brink. What are the odds that our species will manage to contain this awful knowledge without self-destruction--not for a billion years or a million or even a thousand, but just through the lifetime of our children?
Our new century will require extraordinary leadership and imagination-not to mention technological breakthroughs. But will Holocaust memory continue to be important and relevant? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Holocaust memory does not have the power of nations or armies. Yet it is uniquely powerful. It speaks to the most profound and enduring truths about human nature; and it stands for authenticity in the face of assaults against truth; for our common humanity in the face of selfish individualism; for moral clarity in the face of murky relativism.
None of us knows where our globalized, interconnected world is headed. But we know where it's been. We know that technology can change our options, but it can't change human nature. We will need to fortify ourselves for this dynamic and dangerous world. We will need leadership and inspiration, such as demonstrated by tonight's honorees.
I believe Holocaust memory is not only an important gesture of reconciliation about a catastrophic past; but that it can also be a compass that can help us navigate the unprecedented challenges we will confront in a very uncertain future. Thank you.
Bloomfield attended the pre-award banquet, but had to return to the
U.S. due to the sudden death of Miles Lerman, a former board chair and
a founder of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a close friend
of Sara Bloomfield for more than two decades. She presented the euology
at his funeral on January 24, 2008 in Philadelphia.