As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you, Alan (Makovsky), for the introduction. I’d also like to thank Sephardic Heritage International DC for the invitation.
It is an honor to join you today for this, the third annual Congressional International Holocaust Day Remembrance commemoration hosted by SHIN-DC. I wish we could share this commemoration in person, rather than virtually, but I trust that the time that we can do so will come soon.
I particularly welcome the commemoration’s focus this year on the plight of European Jewish refugees in North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Iberian Peninsula before and during WWII, as well as on the war experiences of the indigenous Jewish populations of these countries.
It is a chapter of the Holocaust that is not often highlighted specifically in annual Holocaust commemorations.
As the Department of State’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, I am committed to promoting historically accurate Holocaust education and commemoration, and I believe today’s event greatly advances this goal. At a time of growing Holocaust distortion and increasing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust, this mission is now more important than ever.
About 450,000 to 500,000 Jews called Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya home at the beginning of WWII, and they were joined in the years before and during that war by thousands of European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.
The Jews in that region ended up sharing a common history of suffering and persecution at the hands of the Nazi authorities and their Vichy French and Italian Fascist collaborators who governed these countries for part of the war.
Their experience and suffering needs to be understood, remembered, and honored.
In Algeria and elsewhere in the region, Jews were prohibited from holding a wide range of jobs, compelled to wear the Star of David, and in the case of thousands of them, forced to labor in work camps.
But it is also a history sprinkled with unheralded acts of heroism, resilience, and kindness by Jews and non-Jews alike. You may be familiar with the heroic actions taken by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux, who defied the instructions of his superiors and provided transit visas into Portugal to tens of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. However, I doubt many Americans know about the transit camp near Casablanca that hosted about 3,000 Jewish refugees on their way to the Americas.
I also doubt many know of the actions taken by the Sephardic Jewish community in Tangiers to welcome, and assimilate, the mass of Eastern European Jewish refugees who sought refuge on its shores, or that they know about the important role played by the Jewish resistance in the success of Operation Torch, launched by the Allies in November 1942 and completed in May 1943, which resulted in the ousting of the Nazis from the region.
It is also important history to take to heart because of its pertinence to our own times. The Jewish refugees in WWII have much in common with the plight of millions of refugees today, whether they be men, women, and children fleeing war in Syria; Rohingyas fleeing oppression and violence in Burma; or Uyghurs seeking to avoid internment in the Chinese Communist Party’s labor and “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang.
The fact of the matter is that too many in the international community, including to some extent the United States — which led the Allied effort to defeat Hitler and Nazism — largely failed the Jewish community in its time of need during the Holocaust.
We need to ask ourselves whether the international community is failing to learn and apply the lessons of the Holocaust and whether we are doing enough to educate our citizens about the dangers of where unchecked anti-Semitism and other forms of racial hatred can lead, and whether we are doing enough to prevent future genocides and mass atrocity crimes.
I believe the history of European Jewish refugees in North Africa and the Middle East during WWII can play an important role in tearing down the walls of denial about the Holocaust that persist today in some parts of the Muslim world, and in some segments of Muslim communities in the West.
Everyone should know that while there were individual acts of complicity in these countries in the persecution of Jews, there were instances of Muslims taking courageous action, at times at great peril, to protect Jews as well.
As the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, I am committed to advancing Holocaust education globally so that the citizens of all nations – including in the Middle East — have access to accurate historical information and learn from this tragic history.
Let me conclude by thanking you again for the opportunity to be with you today in commemorating all victims of the Holocaust and Nazi persecution.
And for those who might not have seen it yet, I wanted to share one excerpt from President Biden’s statement yesterday on International Holocaust Remembrance Day:
“The Holocaust was no accident of history. It occurred because too many governments cold-bloodedly adopted and implemented hate-fueled laws, policies, and practices to vilify and dehumanize entire groups of people, and too many individuals stood by silently. Silence is complicity. As my late friend and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos so frequently reminded us: ‘The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.’“
Thank you for including me in today’s program.
Special Envoy Cherrie Daniels joined other speakers at the Sephardic Heritage International in DC’s Annual Congressional Holocaust Commemoration for 2021 in giving remarks on Holocaust history in the Southern Mediterranean and North Africa. Time stamps for the event are as follows: Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer Chairman and CEO, Pfizer (2:38) – Rep. Jamie Raskin, Congressional Sponsor Each Year (16:34) – Chairman Gregory Meeks, House Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Congress (18:22) – HE Alexandra Papadopoulou, Ambassador of Greece to the U.S. (24:06) – HE Floreta Faber, Ambassador of Albania to the U.S. (27:16) – HH Lalla Joumala Alaoui, Ambassador of Morocco to the U.S. (38:52) – HE Domingos Fezas Vital, Ambassador of Portugal to the U.S. (33:08) – Renan Koen (Jewish Community of Turkey), Musical Memorial to All Those Who Perished and Those Who Suffered During the Holocaust, “Arvoles Yoran Por Luvya” (44:52) – Cherrie Daniels, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, U.S. Department of State (50:30) – Dr. Devin Naar, Isaac Alhadeff Professor in Sephardic Studies at the University of Washington (57:44) – Dr. Alma Rachel Heckman, Neufeld-Levin Chair in Holocaust Studies, UC Santa Cruz (1:16:00)