printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Lessons of the Holocaust

Hannah Rosenthal
Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism 
International Conference "Totalitarianism and Tolerance. The Challenge to Freedom"
Vilnius, Lithuania
November 18, 2011


This is a very important day, November 16th. All around the world, the International day of Tolerance is being observed and it's being observed in many different ways. But the way it's being observed here in Lithuania is remarkable. Not just because we're sitting in this glorious building and not just because of the esteemed colleagues that I get to share the stage with. But because government at the highest level has supported an entire day to focus on what do we do, so that the only thing we’re intolerant of is intolerance.

It's also a week ago, on November 9th, that it was the anniversary of

Kristallnacht. Many people believed that the Kristallnacht was the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust. I'll tell you very personally: my father was arrested on Kristallnacht, 73 years ago. And he was a rabbi in Mannheim, Germany, and was arrested and taken to Buchenwald. He was the lucky one. I have no grandparents, no aunts, no uncles, because Dad was the only survivor of his entire family. So dealing with anti-Semitism and dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust is something that is very personal to me. And by virtue of President Obama and Secretary Clinton's appointment of me to this position (an honor that I cannot begin to describe), it also shows the importance of these issues and this issue in particular to United States’ Administration now.

Now my job, very quickly, is that I am told by U.S. Congress: you must monitor anti-Semitism in all 193 countries. Now I can't do that obviously by myself and my wonderful staff. We count on our embassies, I couldn't do my work and know about what's going on Lithuania without Ambassador Anne E. Derse, who is doing her best, and, I can say, that she is the best. And without you, without hearing from civil society, from individuals, who also know what is happening on the streets of your cities, in the forests and in various memorials.

So I report on what I'm learning around the world. But part of my title

is to combat anti-Semitism and that's a whole different kind of challenge. And my combating anti-Semitism comes in many different ways, different strategies as I encounter different forms of anti-Semitism. I am asked: "Hannah, how are you going to know if you're successful?” Well I'm here to tell you, that in my short two years in this position I will not eradicate anti-Semitism from the world. It's all this continual hatred on earth. And my hope is that I will move the needle a bit, that I will judge success by people, who are not Jewish, speaking out against anti-Semitism. At the same time, Jews are speaking out against all other forms of hatred as well. So that's what I do. That's my day job.

The reason that I have come back to Lithuania more than any other country in the world is that I'm excited about what I'm seeing here. Lithuania, as you well know, has had a very difficult history: has been the victim of repressions and, of course, the Holocaust, which is unrivaled in its brutality and near success. The lesson that I come to people with about the Holocaust is this: yes, there were efficient killing factories built. Yes, bands of citizens rounded up Jews and shot them dead: men, women and children. And words cannot describe how horrific that is.

But the lesson in 2011 of the Holocaust is: it is possible, by virtue of the fact that it happened. Will it show itself in different ways? Maybe. But that degree of organized hatred has happened and therefore it can happen again. So we can't ever lose sight of what the fundamental lesson of the Holocaust is.

I also know that the time is ticking and that in 2011 there's a very short window of opportunity, a very short small window where we must get the testimony of the survivors. Where we must get testimony of the perpetrators, where we must hear from people, those who rescued, the brave Lithuanians and people around the world too few in number. But what matters, they should be for us, we have to learn about the rescuers and we have to hold accountable those who perpetrated crimes against humanity. And to do all of that is a very short time, for soon they won't be with us anymore. And so there's a sense of urgency that I bring to this job, when I talk about the Holocaust, the lessons, and what we all have to grapple with. We aren't born hating. When we give birth to our children, they don't decide they're good guys or bad guys, that there are people worth despising and others not. Somewhere along the line we're taught this.

And so while I'm remembering, November 9th, Kristallnacht, I think one of the things worth to focus on in this conference, is November 10th. What happened the next day?

Did Government leaders speak out against the killing, the torture,

the cruelty? No.

Did religious leaders speak out on what they heard and saw? No.

Did business leaders or academia or labor unions…? Everyone was quiet.

And so November 10th transformed into the Holocaust and what would become the Final Solution to get rid of all Jews. Now if those leaders on November 10th had said: '"That's unacceptable," what a different world this would be, what a different country Lithuania would be. Perhaps 220,000 more Lithuanians would have lived and continued to contribute to this great country. That's also a lesson. For a day when we pause to contemplate how to create tolerance, celebrating what contributions communities have made and not just focusing on how they died.

There's an organization that actually the United States government is helping to fund right now, called "Centropa". And Lithuania is one of their top priorities. And what "Centropa" does is train teachers on how to use old interview techniques and old archival pictures to tell stories of how the Jews lived, not how they died. And it's a fabulous program, it already has a relationship with some of the schools. Stay tuned for that -- I think you will see some wonderful student-created testimonials about the part of Lithuania that is no more.

I think that there's a major challenge when we focus on how we are going to make the world more tolerant, that five years ago we wouldn't be talking about. Globalization has a new meaning now. Globalization literally means that you can go on a technological device and talk to someone else, you will never meet face-to-face but have a very in-depth thoughtful conversation with. It means everyone's in this together. And so no one gets off without trying to focus on tolerance. But now it doesn't mean that on November 10th we needed religious leaders and political leaders, right there to condemn. Now we have a global community who's paying attention. And when human rights abuses happen, when we see action on forms of hatred, the whole world must respond, must condemn swiftly and strongly and say: "Because we know what is possible, when there's unchecked hatred, it is our responsibility to do something about it today.'"

Very quickly: (I don't want to have a sad message here) Lithuania has had a very troubled past, your students are learning about that past, we are co-operating with you and the International Task Force on Holocaust Remembrance and Education to focus on the bitter reality of Lithuania's role and responsibility in the Holocaust. And it takes a degree of maturity to really pause and teach your kids the hard truth. But that's not good enough. It isn't good enough to just talk about tolerance. It isn't good enough to just write a constitution that guarantees rule of law. These sentiments have to be written into constitutions, they have to written into bills and official documents, but much more importantly, they need to be taught in classrooms. We need to focus on the young generation. And it takes more than saying that law enforcement, that the police and security services will make sure to protect minorities of all kinds. It's not enough. We have to make sure that the law enforcement institutions understand what we're talking about. Make sure there's flexibility in thought as opposed to rigidity when it comes to new forms of hatred that are popping-up all over the place.

I just want to finish with one quick story. The OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which Lithuania is the chair of right now -- congratulations for Lithuania -- is really in my opinion the only multilateral international body that actually cares about tolerance. And not just armaments and security. The OSCE has an entire arm of its existence focused on the human dimension. And I was invited to participate in a conference of OSCE about a year and a half ago in Kazakhstan and it was a Tolerance conference.

The beginning of the conference was focused on Islamophobia, the second part was on anti-Semitism, the third part was on Christo-phobia and the fourth was on everything else. And as part of the official U.S. delegation, I went and had written the official U.S. statement condemning anti-Semitism. And my colleague at the U.S. State Department, Farah Pandith, whose job is to engage with Muslim communities, was there and she was going to give the official statement condemning hatred of Muslims. The night before we decided to swap speeches. A simple thing to say: "The message is very important." Whether it's to a international body or to a reporter or to a classroom. But sometimes the messenger can be equally important and certainly can improve the impact of what the message is. Now I have travelled all around the world since that conference and anyone who was at that conference said it is the only thing they remember: that the Jew spoke out against Islamophobia and the Muslim spoke out against anti-Semitism. That's fine by me, if that's what they remember.

But the young people that we had brought to this conference said: '"A bunch of talking heads reading statements, very nice, we get your point. Give us something to do!" And so that gave birth to a virtual campaign. By that I mean: there aren't incorporation papers, there's no executive director, there's nothing, it's all online, Facebook and Twitter. And that's all I can tell you, because that's all I know about the technology. But what I can tell you is, we reached out to young people (our target audience was 30 and under). And they wanted something to do. So we asked them to volunteer an hour or more of their time to assist, help, serve someone or some organization that doesn't look like them, pray like them or live like them. Our goal was to get 2011 people to log on to Facebook and tell us their story of what they did to volunteer, to walk in someone else's shoes. Well, this was eight months ago and over 16 000 people have logged on and that doesn't count the mayors in various parts of the world and Ministers of Education who have spread the message around. All we did was launch it. By the way, if you go online and look at it, nothing about Farah or me is on it, nothing about the U.S. State Department. All we did was listen to the young people and launch it.

The thing about today’s technology is that it has no borders. And so people from all over the world (in some cases I can't even tell you where, because the email address is "" and that could be anywhere) logged in and told their stories. And what is so hopeful is when you call it out, when you say fundamentally that the wars that had been fought, the disagreements that had been between people, that you like to think of people of conscience, fundamentally it's about hatred. That thing kids aren't born with. And so, our campaign, called "2011 Hours Against Hate," has now blossomed into action against hate that has been organized all over the world. And the reason I mentioned that is that it was simple, it didn't cost money, it got to the fundamentals.

People want to fight hatred. That's really what promoting tolerance is about: fighting hatred. And recognizing that everyone has a role in that: not just people we elect to office, not just people that we listen to when we go to church, synagogue, mosque or whatever. It's you. And it's me. And it's everyone we know, particularly the young people. And I give you that as an example of sustaining the effort that is so well being presented today.

Back to Top

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.