MODERATOR: Welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive virtual press briefing platform. I’m delighted to welcome participants joining us today from Europe, Africa, and around the globe. Today, we will be speaking with Special Envoy Tom Yazdgerdi for Holocaust Issues.
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, thank you, Mandi. It’s a pleasure to be here. As Mandi said, I’m Tom Yazdgerdi, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues at the U.S. Department of State. My office, which has been in existence for – since 1999 is concerned with the resolution of Holocaust-era property restitution issues and with Holocaust remembrance, education, and commemoration.
Just to dispel a little bit of confusion, there is a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism – that is Special Envoy Elan Carr. He is the primary point of contact within the State Department, within the U.S. Government really, for issues of anti-Semitism, combat and monitoring anti-Semitism.
Let me start by expressing condolences to Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the family of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, and the entire congregation of the Chabad synagogue in San Diego for the horrible act of hatred that took place last week. We condemn this horrendous act and stand with Rabbi Goldstein and his congregation. I think this act kind of puts in stark relief the need to continue to combat, speak out against anti-Semitism, and also to remember the Holocaust where we saw anti-Semitism in its worst form.
So every year my office, in coordination with our Office of Civil Rights, organizes the annual State Department commemoration of Yom HaShoah, or Days of Remembrance. That’s Yom HaShoah in Hebrew. This is an event established by Israel in the early 1950s as a national day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. This day also serves to remember and honor the brave Jewish ghetto fighters who resisted the German army for nearly a month against overwhelming odds during the Warsaw Ghetto – the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943.
Other countries, including the United States, also commemorate Yom HaShoah. While the Days of Remembrance is a whole week of commemoration, this year the actual date of Yom HaShoah falls on May 1st. And here at the State Department we are partnering with the Republic of Belarus to honor the memory of the Minsk Ghetto, one of the largest ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe.
In 2017, we and the Lithuanian and Japanese embassies honored a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who used his position as consul in Kaunas, Lithuania to save 6,000 Jews by providing them with transit visas to Japan. Tens of thousands of peoples are now alive today because of the actions of this righteous man.
In 2018, last year, we partnered with the embassies of Poland and Israel to honor the actions of Irena Sendler, a social worker in Warsaw who saved some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, finding ways to get them out.
The U.S. Congress has also gotten involved in this commemoration. Since 1982, the Congress has authorized an annual national commemoration of this important event, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum leads the effort in organizing it. Today at the United States Capitol, senators and representatives and leaders from around the U.S. will gather to mark this day and hear from Holocaust survivors about their experiences and listen to the names read of those who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Also as you may know, the International March of the Living, which takes place during Yom HaShoah, is an annual education program bringing individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance, and hatred. Other countries also sponsor marches of the living. I had the opportunity to take part last year in North Macedonia, as we marched from the center of Skopje to the train station where Jews were sent to their deaths.
This year on May 2nd in Krakow, Poland, nine high-level U.S. Government officials will come together to lead for the first time ever an official delegation to the annual March of the Living at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. The three co-chairs of this delegation are Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, our Ambassador to Germany Rick Grenell, and our Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher. So we’re very excited that this is happening for the first time this year.
So not only our government and our congress mark these days of remembrance; communities, state and local governments, schools, military installations, and many others all over the United States take time to remember Yom HoShoah and to never forget one of the darkest chapters in human history.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Envoy Yazdgerdi. To those watching, you can start submitting your questions now in the Questions tab at the top of your screen. Please, feel free to leave questions in English, Russian, or French, and our moderators will translate as necessary.
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With that, let’s get started with our first question. So our first question comes from Momchil Indjov at Club Z Media Group in Bulgaria: Could you describe today’s situation in former Communist Eastern Europe countries concerning the restitution of Jewish property? Where there – where is there the most progress made, and where is there the least?
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, since the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there have been engagement with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to resolve remaining Holocaust-era property restitution issues. Archives have been opened, Holocaust survivors and their heirs have come forward, scholars and researchers have made efforts to understand the scope of the restitution, and some countries have passed legislation to resolve these issues.
Before this time, the Cold War essentially had put these issues in a deep freeze. I would describe the situation today with respect to Holocaust-era property restitution as incomplete. There has been some progress and acknowledgment about the tragedy of the Holocaust in terms of restitution, but more needs to be done so that Jewish private communal and heirless property has either been returned or has been compensated. This is also true for the issue of Nazi-confiscated and looted art.
I would not like to compare the situation in various countries because it is not helpful to do so. Each country has its own set of circumstances and specific experiences. What I can say is that we have a dialogue with many countries in Europe, including in Western Europe, on such matters.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question is from Nadarajah Sethurupan at Norway News in Norway: The Terezin Declaration didn’t control Nazi doctors in Asia and Europe, and now they are in Africa, the EU, and the Middle East operating against legal assets around the world. How can the U.S. control the economic consequences of terrorism?
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, that’s a very broad question and probably beyond the scope of my office, but I can say that documents like the Terezin Declaration – first of all, the Terezin Declaration that you mention is a non-binding political document, so countries aren’t legally bound to it. But there’s a moral – the biggest real aspect to the Terezin Declaration is a moral responsibility. So to answer your question, states have to make the decision that they want to resolve these issues – restitution issues, terrorist asset issues, as you say – on a moral basis, and that essentially is what the Terezin Declaration does. It doesn’t force a country to do anything. They have to do these things of their own free will because it’s the right thing to do. So when countries gathered in 2009 in the town of Terezin, Czech Republic, which of course was the sight of the horrible Theresienstadt Ghetto, they committed themselves to doing this.
And I might add that our Congress has taken that commitment, that political commitment, and actually passed a law, the JUST Act it’s called, the Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act, which requires my office, the State Department, to provide a report, a one-time report, which will be submitted to the Congress by November of this year, on the record of countries which endorsed the Terezin Declaration, all 45 or them. It will be a report on their record of abiding by the Terezin Declaration. So I think the Terezin Declaration can serve, perhaps, as an example for other areas, but again, it’s a non-political binding document that really derives its strength from its moral dimension.
MODERATOR: This is a question from Judit Csernyanszky at Klubradio in Hungary: “How do you evaluate the Hungarian Government’s billboard campaign against Soros and his relation to the European parliamentary election as well as the government conveying its message against EU migration policy?”
MR YAZDGERDI: Well again, that’s beyond the scope of my office. Let me say that at the outset. But I have to say that any – and I’ve said this when I was in Hungary before – that anything that is a – something that seeks to divide individuals in a society is not helpful to my work. And so we have made – we have gone on record saying that, and we would hope that such actions – that governments would actually promote actions that serve the purposes of combatting anti-Semitism, of explaining in detail what anti-Semitism’s about, and also serving to promote the – what my office deals with, which is the resolution of Holocaust-era property restitution issues. We have a strong dialogue with the Hungarian Government on these issues. I’m not going to go into details because it’s part of our diplomatic communication with the Hungarian Government, but I can say that we have a productive dialogue with the Hungarian Government on these issues.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I’ll add a couple moderator questions. There are reports that Holocaust denial is on the rise among European youth almost 65 years after the end of World War II. How do we fight this trend and why is it important to promote Holocaust education?
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, I think it’s – that’s the key. You mentioned Holocaust education. That really is the key to educating our young people on why the Holocaust is so important. It’s not just important to learn the facts of what happened so many decades ago, it has an actual impact today. We saw that in San Diego last week and in horrific acts in the United States and around the world. So I think the best way to do that is to encourage – and this by the way includes the United States as well – to encourage governments to invest the time and resources to promote Holocaust education. How did this come about? What led to the hatred that allowed the Holocaust to occur? These are incredibly important questions, and young people are the target audience, to be honest with you. So – and we also use – the United States uses its membership in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the IHRA as it’s called, to promote, along with the many other countries in that organization, how – what are the best practices in doing so.
We need to appeal to young people, not just through reading something in a text book, which is not the most, I think, effective way of reaching young people these days, but actually finding creative ways to make it alive for them, meaning – I’ve read of an effort by our – the University of Southern California, the Shoah center there, to actually create holograms of Holocaust survivors that actually brings this to life, so to speak, for young people. And I’ve seen that it’s extremely effective. You can ask the hologram any questions – you can ask the Holocaust survivor any questions about their – what happened to them, their experiences, their feelings, and so forth, and they will respond. And so I think it’s those kinds of efforts we really need to promote not only in the United States but around the world.
MODERATOR: Can you tell us – this question comes from Zakhar Shcharbakou from BelaPAN Information Company: “What is exactly the agenda of the event in commemoration of the Minsk Ghetto?”
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, it’s a good question. I think the Belorussians had approached us because saying that the Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest in Nazi-occupied Europe. More than 80,000 Jews were crammed into a tiny space, and many of them were subsequently deported and killed. The liquidation of the ghetto occurred last – the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto occurred last November, and we thought it was an appropriate topic to include in this year’s theme for the State Department’s commemoration of Yom HaShoah, and we also are going to be honored with the presence of a Minsk Ghetto survivor. His name is Saveliy Kaplinsky, and Mr. Kaplinsky will be here at the State Department on Wednesday to relate his experiences in living in what must have been the horrible conditions in the ghetto, and his escape to the forest to join the Partisans to fight against the German army.
So we’re very much – I think that’s an extremely appropriate theme. We – what gives us – Yom HaShoah sort of gives us a platform to disseminate to the wider State Department family, let’s say, various elements of the Holocaust. So we’re very excited to have him and we’re very excited to partner with the – with our Belorussian friends and colleagues, and we hope for a good program on Wednesday.
MODERATOR: This next question comes from Andrei Sitov from TASS News Agency of Russia: Jared Kushner’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors and Partisan resistance fighters in Belarus in World War II. Does he take part in the Day of Remembrance? Also, do you feel enough is being done in Belarus and in Russia to commemorate the victims of Holocaust and the resistance fighters against Nazism?
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, I think Mr. Kushner certainly has been invited. There’s also – let me just say that there’s not – as I mentioned in my remarks, it’s not just the State Department that’s doing something. There’s going to be a commemoration today, actually, as I mentioned, at the U.S. Capitol. I’m sure Mr. Kushner has been invited to that as well. These – this – these commemorations obviously for his family have special, particular importance, and so of course he’s been invited to attend.
And I’m sorry, the second part of the question was?
MODERATOR: Let’s see. “Do you feel enough is being done in Belarus and in Russia to commemorate the victims of Holocaust and the resistance fighters against Nazism?”
MR YAZDGERDI: Yeah. Well, I think we all can do – we all can do more, I think. That’s for sure. I mean, I think especially as Holocaust survivors are becoming fewer and fewer – each year, we have less and less of these direct links to the Holocaust itself to guide us, to educate us, to give us the immediacy of what went on there. So we encourage all countries, even those that are not members of the IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, to make certain that they are following best practices in teaching their young people about the education, in commemorating the Holocaust, in protecting important Holocaust memorial sites, doing all these things, because it – you don’t have to belong to an organization to do that because it’s the right thing to do.
MODERATOR: And can you talk just a little bit – again, this is a moderator question – talk to us a little bit about why we are working with a country that is not part of the anti-Semitism alliance?
MR YAZDGERDI: You mean the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance? Is that – I think the IHRA, you’re going – Belarus? Yeah.
MODERATOR: The IHRA. Yes, sir.
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, again, as I said, Belarus is not a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, but it doesn’t mean that we cannot have a partnership and a relationship with that country with regard to the things that my office does. So we have, I think by the virtue – by virtue of the fact that we’re doing, we’re partnering this year with Belarus – kind of reflects that. But also one day we would hope, at some point, to welcome Belarus into the IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, because it’s a – it is the – it is an important organization of countries that seek to share their best practices on all sorts of aspects of the Holocaust. And by the way, it’s not just government officials like me that come to the IHRA meetings. It’s also – it’s kind of an unusual organization, sort of a hybrid. Most of my delegation actually is scholars and researchers, and they have equal access, equal space at the table, let’s say, that I do.
So that’s an incredibly important thing, because I think what’s really important is making certain that countries – whether you’re a major Holocaust country like Belarus, let’s say, or any other country – has – is reporting accurately on what happened during that time. I think that’s one of the key things that the IHRA does, is it’s concerned with making certain that the historical narrative is accurate and that the historical – that history reflects that. I think that’s incredibly important, and it’s done by these – many times by these scholars and researchers that serve on the various delegations to the IHRA.
MODERATOR: Can you tell us a little bit about what this administration is doing to help get – help Jews get restitution from Poland?
MR YAZDGERDI: Yeah, I think the administration is interested in that. Of course, our Congress is interested in that. It’s not an easy issue. Poland was a – was the first victim of Nazi Germany. No one is questioning that. But I think what’s important is that all countries have to come to terms at some point with their difficult past, and of course, the United States is no – is not immune to that. There are chapters in our history that we still have to come to terms with. So I think the administration is interested in pursuing the issue of – and by the way, the issue of restitution not just for Holocaust survivors, but for anyone who had had property confiscated by the Nazis or nationalized by the Communists. I think it’s important that every country deals with those issues. Poland, it’s a particularly difficult question. Most of the Jews that lived in Europe before the war – about 3.3 million – lived in Poland. So it’s a tough – it’s a tough issue, but I think one that with good will and certainly cooperation on the part of the United States I think could be resolved.
MODERATOR: This question comes from Andrei Sitov from TASS News Agency of Russia again: Can glorification of former Nazis ever be justified?
MR YAZDGERDI: No, I don’t think so. I think we have to be – we have to speak out against any sort of glorification that exists. And I think our government has a good record on that. We encourage other governments to do that, as well. I think every country has to – has its own historical narrative, let’s say. The United States also does, Russia does, every country does. I think that historical record, first of all, has to be accurate and it has to reflect the values of those countries. We belong to a democratic family of friends and allies, and so those – the steps we take, the steps that any country takes, have to really reflect those values.
So obviously, the glorification of Nazi leaders is not – does not fit into that system of values.
MODERATOR: So this question actually comes from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk: Anti-Semitism, unfortunately, is alive and well in the world today, and this weekend’s shooting at the synagogue in California shows that the United States is not immune from this horror. Does your office deal with current issues such as this, or is your focus mainly on the Holocaust itself?
MR YAZDGERDI: That’s a good question. As I mentioned, Special Envoy Elan Carr is the person in our government that deals specifically with combatting and monitoring anti-Semitism. He is the special envoy, so obviously, he is the person to address questions of anti-Semitism. There is some overlap between my office and Special Envoy Carr’s office. For example, if you deny the Holocaust – obviously my office is interested in the Holocaust. If you deny the Holocaust, that is by definition an anti-Semitic act, so there is some overlap. And unfortunately, we do see – and Elan Carr could speak of course more fully to this issue – but we do see sort of a – an increase, a rise of anti-Semitic acts in Europe and the United States and around the world, and it is troubling and I’m very glad that Elan Carr is now – he was just sworn in a couple weeks ago – that he is now fully established in his office to lead our government – to lead our government’s response to these hate crimes.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Another moderator question.
MR YAZDGERDI: Please.
MODERATOR: In this climate of increasing anti-Semitism, what are helpful steps to eradicate hate crimes?
MR YAZDGERDI: Well, again, I’d say that’s a question best for – set for Elan Carr. But I think, again, the best helpful steps are education. That’s more of a long-term process. But also speaking out. There’s – when a government, any government, including our own, is confronted with these horrific acts of hatred that result in bloodshed and murder, we need to speak out. Of course, our government has spoken out on this, on the events that happened last week in San Diego. So that is the first thing. Citizens of any country where these crimes occur, these hate crimes occur, need to speak out, number one.
Number two, they need to be – these people that committed these crimes, whether it’s the horrific act that happened last week or the desecration of a Jewish synagogue or cemetery, or harassment of any kind, governments need to go after these people that commit these crimes. There needs to be clearly a sanction for such behavior or else they won’t be taken seriously.
So first, speaking out – well, first, education, but that’s more of a long-term process. Then speaking – but on the specific acts that we’re talking about, speaking out and then prosecuting the full – to the full extent of the law, so it’s clear that the government will pursue these individuals who commit these horrific crimes.
MODERATOR: Can you talk to us a little bit more about what the Trump administration has done on Holocaust issues, and what the types of issues are that you are working on?
MR YAZDGERDI: Yeah. Well, the Trump administration is committed to, I think, support of my office. I know that. We have – I know there was an effort early in the administration to downsize the State Department and my office did survive, so I think it showed the importance the administration attaches to the work we do. I have the money I need, the funding I need to travel abroad to meet with government officials, and we know we do have support from the White House.
I will give you an example that was sort of in the media last August, and that was the removal of one of the – we think is one of the ex-Nazis living in the United States. The Trump administration was extremely – and our great ambassador in Germany, Rick Grenell, was extremely active in seeking his removal, interceded with the German Government, and he was deported last August, and he had been in this country for decades. He had lied on his application about his Nazi past. So I think that also – we had been – by the way, we had – this has been around for a long, long time, this issue. So I think that issue, that case itself of this ex-Nazi – he was a former SS guard at a slave labor camp – Jakiw Palij his name was – the fact that he was removed from the United States to Germany I think shows the importance that this administration attaches to those issues.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you. That is all the time we have for today. Thank you for your questions and thank you again, Special Envoy Yazdgerdi, for joining us today.
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MR YAZDGERDI: Thanks, Mandi.