Thank you Jaakob and Dr. Babak for the very kind introductions and for the invitation to speak with you today.
Before I discuss my mission as the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, please allow me to highlight the importance of the opening ceremonies last Sunday celebrating 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany. I understand that the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dr. Josef Schuster, marked the event together with Federal President Steinmeier, North Rhine-Westphalia Minister President Laschet, and Israeli President Rivlin. Events like this are vital to counter growing anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism and reemphasize the importance of preserving Jewish culture and a shared future in Germany and Europe.
The position of Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues was established in 1999, with a goal of working for a measure of justice for Holocaust victims and their heirs, including in the form of restitution of, or compensation for, property confiscated during the Holocaust. Equally important is the goal of promoting historically accurate Holocaust remembrance, education, and research and the opening of Holocaust-era archives. The United States was a founding member of what is now known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – or IHRA – in 1998. IHRA now has 34 member nations as well as dozens of Permanent International Partners.
Germany will soon complete its one-year term as Chair of IHRA, under the dynamic leadership of Ambassador Michaela Kuechler and her dedicated team in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Germany’s proactive leadership — during this complicated pandemic environment — produced outstanding results and policy documents endorsed by all 34 IHRA member countries. A few examples of its success include:
- The Chair led successful negotiations last summer that produced a Joint Statement globally condemning attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of those complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma;
- Germany also drove the successful effort to gain the consensus of all 34 nations to adopt a first-ever “working definition of anti-Gypsyism/anti-Roma discrimination;”
- The Chair and the IHRA Permanent Office in Berlin, together with IHRA’s international experts, cooperated with the European Commission on Anti-Semitism to develop and jointly publish a Handbook on Practical Uses of the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism;
- Germany’s Federal Foreign Office formed and led IHRA’s Global Task Force which developed and just released groundbreaking Recommendations for Policymakers on Recognizing and Countering Holocaust Distortion; and
- Finally, Germany is close to completing the work of upgrading the status of the IHRA Permanent Office in Berlin to that of an “International Institution” – in recognition of the vital multilateral diplomacy driven and supported by the dedicated domestic and international civil servants who work at IHRA.
These achievements have strengthened the IHRA as an institution and advanced its goals, which will be an enduring legacy of Germany’s leadership.
With that backdrop, let’s discuss some of the newest tools developed within IHRA that will impact the global effort to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion and promote Holocaust education. I understand that the Bavarian chapter of the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Antisemitism participated in the publication of the “Handbook for the Practical Use of the IHRA Working Definition of Anti-Semitism” by the European Commission. I commend all involved for making sure the 2016 working definition increasingly serves as a practical tool for identifying and tackling anti-Semitism. This is especially important at a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere in the world.
On another front, it is important that IHRA member and non-member countries alike work together with civil society to address the growing lack of knowledge about the Holocaust. IHRA experts developed brand new “Recommendations for Teaching and Learning about the Holocaust”– and all 34 member governments endorsed those recommendations at the Luxembourg plenary in December 2019. Why is this important? A critical task for educators and policymakers is to promote the understanding of not just WHAT happened, but HOW it happened. That is, an understanding of how the heinous crimes committed by the Nazis and their auxiliaries and collaborators across Europe were fed by anti-Semitism, other forms of hatred, and dehumanization of the “other” — whether Jews, Roma and Sinti, Slavs, homosexuals, or other groups. To quote one short passage from President Biden’s January 27 statement 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.”
The U.S. has a long-standing commitment to promoting historically accurate Holocaust education. Our ability to do that at home was bolstered by the signing into law on May 29, 2020 of the bipartisan Never Again Education Act. One especially meaningful excerpt of this legislation reads:
As intolerance, antisemitism, and bigotry are promoted by hate groups, Holocaust education provides a context in which to learn about the danger of what can happen when hate goes unchallenged and there is indifference in the face of the oppression of others; learning how and why the Holocaust happened is an important component of the education of citizens of the United States.
Germany has taken bold steps, as evidenced by the German government’s announcement of increased funding for Holocaust education globally over the next three years, on top of educational projects undertaken via the Memory, Responsibility, and Future (or EVZ) foundation. For our part, the U.S. Department of State will continue to make promoting historically accurate Holocaust education a priority in our engagement with other countries.
Turning to another focus area, let’s discuss the State Department’s JUST Act Report and the issue of property restitution. On July 29, 2020, the U.S. Government publicly released the Congressionally mandated JUST Act Report. The Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act – or “JUST” Act – of 2017 is U.S. legislation that required the Department of State to report to Congress on steps that 46 countries had taken to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs for assets seized by Nazi Germany or subsequently nationalized by post-war communist governments.
The JUST Act Report was the product collaboration between my office in Washington, DC, U.S. embassies abroad, NGOs, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the U.S. Government’s Expert Advisor on Holocaust Issues, Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat. The report aims to encourage countries to reflect on the best practices to fulfill the commitments they freely undertook when they endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration. The commitments countries made include: recognizing the importance of caring for the well-being of Holocaust survivors; protecting and working to provide restitution of or compensation for real property confiscated during the Holocaust or subsequently nationalized during the Communist era; preserving burial sites; returning looted art, Judaica, and other movable property; ensuring public access to archives; and educating, researching, memorializing the Holocaust.
The JUST Act Report also serves as a reminder to all of us that countries must act with a greater sense of urgency to provide restitution or compensation for the property wrongfully seized from victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi persecution — many of whom are now living in poverty in their advanced age.
While we found that some countries have done better than others in living up to their commitments, the report also underscores that all can do more to deliver a measure of justice nearly 75 years after the end of the Holocaust. The report did not single out any particular country, and we are gratified that – by and large – it has been appreciated for what it is: a descriptive rather than prescriptive account of what countries that endorsed the 2009 Terezin Declaration have done – and not yet done – to implement their commitments in the following decade.
Another area of focus is the Arolsen Archives.
In June 2020, the United States assumed a one-year term Chairmanship of the 11-nation International Commission of the International Tracing Service, which oversees the Arolsen Archives. Promoting greater public access to historical archives concerning the Holocaust and World War II is part of my office’s core mission.
Founded by the Allies at the end of World War II, the Arolsen Archives preserve records on 17.5 million people who were murdered or victimized by Nazi persecution or displaced after World War II. The archives are overseen by an 11-nation International Commission comprised of Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Those archives – a digital copy of which is maintained by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington – have been key to reuniting families and identifying the fate of persons persecuted or murdered by the Nazis.
The Arolsen Archives vastly expanded online offerings the last couple of years by digitizing millions of documents. These materials offer any interested person a great tool to conduct historical research on the Holocaust. In 2020, the Arolsen Archives launched the #EveryNameCounts campaign, which invites people all over the world to transcribe the handwritten names from concentration camp records so the names can be incorporated into the database. So far, thousands of people have volunteered to do this work, all of which is done remotely from homes or classrooms. German Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters, has been patron of #EveryNameCounts. And institutions such as UNESCO, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and the Auschwitz State Museum are providing support as partners of the memorial initiative.
I invite those attending today to join in – go to https://arolsen-archives.org for more information or look on Twitter for #EveryNameCounts. I also encourage you to look at the Arolsen Archives’ “Stolen Memory” traveling and online exhibits.
An additional area of focus I want to mention is countering Holocaust distortion and denial worldwide. The U.S. Government has wholeheartedly supported the German-led initiative within IHRA to issue recommendations to policymakers for recognizing and countering Holocaust distortion. In partnership with the United Nations and UNESCO, the IHRA recommendations were issued in January 2021 along with an online #ProtectTheFacts campaign to raise awareness of the dangers posed by Holocaust distortion.
In fact, even before the IHRA recommendations were launched this year, the United States Congress had included the following paragraph in the Never Again Education Act:
Today, those who deny that the Holocaust occurred or distort the true nature of the Holocaust continue to find forums, especially online; this denial and distortion dishonors those who were persecuted, and murdered, making it even more of a national imperative to educate students in the United States so that they may explore the lessons that the Holocaust provides for all people, sensitize communities to the circumstances that gave rise to the Holocaust, and help youth be less susceptible to the falsehood of Holocaust denial and distortion and to the destructive messages of hate that arise from Holocaust denial and distortion.
In addition to disseminating the new IHRA recommendations on countering distortion, my team has also been vigilant in calling out governments and individuals when they engage in Holocaust distortion. To name just one recent instance, on January 27 of this year – International Holocaust Remembrance Day – I joined the U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, as well as the German and Israeli Ambassadors, in publicly condemning remarks made by a Lithuanian Member of Parliament who blamed Jews in part for the Holocaust in that country.
As trans-Atlantic partners, we must all stay united in identifying, calling out, and condemning the various forms of Holocaust distortion if we wish to push back against this dangerous and pernicious phenomenon. There is a role for all of us.
Lastly, let me address the impact of the change in the U.S. administration on my mission as Special Envoy. The good news is that there is none. Since the office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues was established in 1999, the mission has been fully supported by Democratic and Republican Administrations alike. The longstanding bipartisan commitment to our issues was evident in the passage of the JUST Act. The bill was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives. It was signed into law by President Donald Trump in May 2018.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his first full day on the job, said in remarks at an International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration:
Every day that I serve as Secretary of State, I will carry the memory of my stepfather (a Holocaust survivor) and his family, and the six million Jewish people and millions of others who were killed in the Holocaust.
He added that the lessons of the Holocaust…
…are as vital now as they have ever been, maybe more so,” and that “it is important that we speak the truth about the past to protect the facts when others try to distort or trivialize Holocaust crimes, and to seek justice for the survivors and their families.
I have no doubt that I have the full support of the leadership of the U.S. Government in carrying on my mission.
To summarize: if we, as an international community, hope to make our future better than our past, we must protect the facts. We must preserve access to archives from the Holocaust era. We must work together to identify, call out, and stand united against rampant anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred and discrimination. And we must tackle the problem of Holocaust distortion by promoting historically accurate Holocaust education both at home and abroad.
Thank you, and I look forward to answering your questions.