Dr. Laura Cohen: Welcome everyone, my name is Dr. Laura Cohen, and I am the Executive Director of the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Center, at Queensborough Community College, at the City University of New York in Bayside, Queens. This evening’s event commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and we’re delighted that US State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, Ellen Germain, is joining us to discuss the ongoing impact and legacy of the Holocaust in US foreign policy. This occasion marks 78 years since the liberation of one of the most notorious concentration and extermination camps during the Holocaust. Auschwitz Birkenau in Nazi occupied Poland where the Nazis murdered approximately 1.1 million people, the vast majority of whom were Jewish.
Today’s commemoration is about education and awareness of the genocidal consequences of antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia. It’s happening while we are seeing a record increase in both antisemitic attacks against visibly Jewish people, as well as antisemitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories espoused by local, state, and national politicians that are creating mistrust and fear within the Jewish community. It is a powerful reminder that both a catastrophe of and lessons from the Holocaust continue to reverberate both here and abroad. And it is also our responsibility as individuals and as a community to educate people who may know little to nothing about the Holocaust. It is not enough that we care. We must also get others too. It is our way of paying forward our collective debt to Holocaust survivors and finding ways to reach people from all communities and backgrounds around the world.
And it is in this spirit of collectivity that nine other centers in the New York, New Jersey region are co-sponsoring this event. They include the Center for the Holocaust and Genocide studies at the US Military Academy at West Point; the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University; the Holocaust Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College; the Holocaust Museum and Center for Tolerance and Education at Rockland Community College; the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey; the Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding at Suffolk County Community College; the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center in White Plains; the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education at St. Elizabeth University; and the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College.
Now it is my great pleasure to introduce Ms. Ellen Germain. Ms. Germain assumed her duties as special envoy for Holocaust issues in August of 2021, and is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service. Ms. Germain served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina between 2018 and 2021. Her previous positions include Director of the Office of Arabian Peninsula Affairs in the Bureau of near Eastern Affairs, head of the US Consulate General in Krakow Poland, and postings as deputy political counselor at the US Embassy in Baghdad and at the US Mission to the United Nations in New York, where she was responsible for issues relating to the Middle East, East Asia, and nonproliferation. In Washington D.C., Ms. Germain has also held positions in the offices of Russian Affairs, Israel-Palestinian Affairs and Maghrib Affairs, and her other oversee tours were Tel Aviv, London, and Moscow, and she joined the Foreign Service in 1995. It is my great pleasure to turn things over to Ms. Ellen Germain.
Special Envoy Ellen Germain: Okay, well thank you so much Laura, and I am really delighted to be able to participate in this commemoration for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I want thank you for organizing this event and for inviting me to be a part of it. And a big thank you also to all of the other institutions that are co-sponsoring this. I am often asked why the State Department has an Office of Holocaust Issues, and it is a fair question because it does not seem necessarily logical or immediately obvious why such an office would exist. So I want to try and answer that question as I talk this evening, and I want to talk about the long-term effect of the Holocaust on US foreign policy, and also how Holocaust issues really continue to manifest themselves in US foreign policy today. And as I think we probably, many people who are listening to this are aware, this has become much more timely with the Russian aggression in Ukraine because President Putin, Russian President Putin has been using this false claim of de-Nazification saying that Ukraine needs to be de-nazified and is a hotbed of neo-Nazis as a false pretext for his unprovoked war in Ukraine. And they seemed to be doubling down on that because Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov just last week made another statement that was a horrendous comparison of the Holocaust with the Russian, the war in Ukraine.
And so all of this kind of shows how present the Holocaust really is still in foreign policy in, you know, the way countries talk to and about each other. And in this case, it is really a cynical misappropriation and distortion of the history of the Second World War and the history of the Holocaust. It also distracts from really important efforts to confront and grapple with serious problems of antisemitism and hate speech around the world. So in the spirit of looking at history and talking about use and misuse of the history of the Holocaust, I want to briefly go back and review a little bit of World War II history, actually post World War II history. In the wake of the devastation of the Holocaust and of World War II, world leaders came together to create a new rules-based international order based on principles of democracy and human rights. And the goal was to promote peaceful settlement of disputes rather than trying to settle arguments by fighting wars. And so institutions like the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all of those sprang from the horrors of the Holocaust and you know, the experience of World War II.
And so from all of that sprang some really fundamental concepts of international human rights law, and ideas about what constitutes crimes against humanity. And the word genocide itself was coined by Raphael Lempkin, who was a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis and spent the rest of his life working to try to prevent genocides and other crimes against humanity. So when I joined the Foreign Service, when I joined the State Department, the orientation course for new diplomats for new foreign service officers included a visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. And one of the exhibits that they marched us over to and had us stand in front of for quite a while, and they talked about it a lot, was an exhibit on the USS St. Louis that was of course, the German ship that carried 937 Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany in 1939. And the ship sailed from Europe, arrived, you know, in North America, was turned away from Cuba and was turned away from the United States. The passengers were not allowed to land. They went back to Europe where many of the passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.
And you know, you can ask why was that a focus first, why were we at the Holocaust Museum at all as newly minted diplomats going through our orientation course? And why was that particular exhibit a focus? And I think it is because while, of course, diplomats deal with current foreign policy, our work should always be informed by our understanding and our knowledge of the past with the goal of trying to do better in the future. And this is something that Secretary of State Blinken, who is himself the stepson of a Holocaust survivor, has talked about quite a bit, including in what was, I think almost his first speech as Secretary of State. He talked about what the United States’ government, and in particular the State Department did and did not do during the run up to the Holocaust and during World War II, during the Holocaust, to try and help Jews who were trying to flee Nazi Europe. And for those of you who have watched the new Ken Burns documentary, the US and the Holocaust, that focused on these same issues. And I was, I was really almost devastated by some of what the documentary pointed out because while I have been familiar with these issues, it really throws into stark relief the failures of the US government in addressing the issue of refugees fleeing persecution and ultimately murder.
And so one of the stories that both Secretary Blinken highlighted and the new PBS documentary highlights is the story of Breckenridge Long who in the late 1930s and 1940s was the official at the State Department in charge of visa matters, in charge of the policy that defined who could enter the United States and who could not. And so he had immense power to help those who were being persecuted in Europe. But as the Nazis began to systematically round up, deport and ultimately murder Jews, Breckenridge Long actually made it harder and harder for refugees, for European Jews to get visas, to get permission to enter the United States. He was putting obstacles in the way of refugees rather than looking for ways to help them. And, you know, he was not alone in doing this. Others at the State Department helped him write memos and helped him implement his policies. And others just sat by silently and neither helped nor hindered while these policies were being implemented. Fortunately, there were some in the US government who did push back and a really courageous group of Treasury Department employees saw what was happening and sent a report to President Roosevelt, in which they laid out in really devastating detail, the State Department’s failure to help the Jews of Europe. And that report said, “State Department officials have not only failed to use the government machinery at their disposal to rescue the Jews from Hitler, but have even gone so far as to use this governmental machinery to prevent the rescue of these Jews.” They warned, “This government will have to share for all time responsibility for this extermination.”
Those are pretty scathing words. And six days later, President Roosevelt announced the creation of the War Refugee Board. And that was in January of 1944 and the war refugee board did go on to rescue tens of thousands of Jews and to help hundreds of thousands more. But by then more than 4 million Jews had already been murdered. So from 1933 to 1943, America’s immigration quotas permitted accepting 1.5 million people. The United States admitted fewer than half a million. So that means that 1 million slots went unfilled while millions of Jews were being murdered. All of this means that we should never forget the way that individuals, you know, individual people can make entire systems or bureaucracies tilt towards the inhumane and how our sanitized language of cables, briefing memos, and reports can be used to obscure what is happening and can be used to turn people away, people who need help. And by the same token, it also kind of shows us, and I think makes us stay aware of the fact that we should never forget that individuals can also use those same mechanisms of bureaucracy, and of briefings and memos and words, to try and help those who need our help and to try to use those same mechanisms to save lives.
And I have to say, we are trying, and I think we are doing better with the current refugee crisis in Europe. This is the largest refugee crisis since World War II. And with the millions of refugees who are displaced within Ukraine or who have fled Ukraine, there is a lot of work to be done. Since February 24th, the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States has provided $1.9 billion in humanitarian assistance to support displaced people, to support refugees and other vulnerable populations in Ukraine and in the entire region surrounding Ukraine. So the mission of my office, the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, we describe it as we are seeking a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs, and we are located in the State Department because that mission is a human rights issue and it is a rule of law issue of international dimensions. And of course, with the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, we’re again reminded of the horrors of war and the moral necessity of trying to seek justice for all victims past and present.
And keeping the history that I just went over in mind provides, I think a grounding for why our office is in the State Department and some of the issues both of memory and of action that we are trying to address. So my office’s activity really encompasses two major areas. One is restitution or compensation, and the other is accurate education and commemoration about the Holocaust. Our work on restitution or compensation involves encouraging foreign countries to pass laws or regulations that will enable individuals to file claims for Jewish property that was seized by the Nazis during World War II. And there are all kinds of different kinds of property that we are talking about in different kinds of situations. And this commitment to encouraging countries to acknowledge and do the right thing for people from whom their property, everything they owned from their house to their dishes, to their silverware was illegally seized. They were stripped of their citizenship, they were deported and most of them were murdered. That is a part of the US commitment to human rights and to rule of law. It is something that for countries that are aspiring to become members of the EU or of NATO dealing with remaining Holocaust restitution issues, as well as ensuring accurate commemoration and education of the Holocaust, those are part of their ability to show their commitment to democratic principles and to rule of law.
For example, the EU itself just adopted its first strategy on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life. And the strategy has three pillars, one of which is education, research, and Holocaust remembrance, which makes promoting Holocaust education commemoration and countering Holocaust distortion and denial central parts of this EU-wide strategy. And in the US in a demonstration of how important, how Holocaust issues are to the US and what a bipartisan issue it is, both in Congress and in all administrations, basically certainly since 1999, which is when my office and my position were established, Congress in 2018 required the State Department to produce a landmark report on Holocaust restitution and remembrance. And this report, which was released in 2020, built on something called the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets. The report looked at the progress of the 46 nations that had endorsed The Terezin Declaration. And it looked at them in terms of the legislation or regulations that they had put into place for restitution or compensation for Holocaust era property.
It also reviewed the steps that had been taken by those countries to support Holocaust remembrance and to implement Holocaust education and to provide access to archives and libraries so that Holocaust, research on World War II and the Holocaust can be made available to scholars from all over the world. This report that the State Department had to provide to Congress on the progress the countries are making in all these areas of restitution and commemoration of the Holocaust, really acts as a reminder to all of us that we have to act with a greater sense of urgency when it comes to providing restitution or compensation for the property that was wrongfully seized by the Nazis during World War II.
Holocaust survivors, of course now are, you know, the youngest of them are almost 80 and inevitably their numbers are diminishing every year. And those survivors who are left very tragically, many of them are very poor, including about one third of the Holocaust survivors in the United States who live at or near the poverty line. Most of them need medical assistance, food, home care, and other types of help. And in that sense, providing them with some measure of compensation or restitution is a human rights issue. The international community failed these people in their youth, and we should not fail them again now in their old age when they need our help again.
And there are a lot of ways these days that countries can look at restitution or compensation, a lot of ways that they can fulfill commitments to implement restitution because nobody is suggesting that almost 80 years after the end of World War II, that current residents of homes or businesses who may have lived there now themselves for generations, that those people should be dispossessed. But, for example, a government fund can be created to pay a small percentage of the fair market value of somebody’s grandparents’ small home or someone’s great-uncle’s tailor shop in their town in central or eastern Europe. And there is also something that I have heard from Holocaust survivors when I talk to them. And it is one of the things that I maybe find the most moving in my conversations. They say that, you know, a lot of what is important now is also symbolic. It is an acknowledgement that a great wrong was done to them. That their, as I said, that their great-grandfather did live in this town and did live in this building and maybe owned a little shop over here. It is a recognition that these people were torn from their lives and they lost more than the actual value of whatever property or assets they had. They lost their sort of membership in this town, in this community. And they are looking for recognition, acknowledgement that yes, there was a Jewish community here and we were once part of that.
So a few months ago I was actually in Prague where the Czech government was holding a conference to talk about exactly this, about restitution, compensation remembrance. 20 years, or actually 22 years, given COVID, after that original Terezin Declaration had been announced in 2009. And the conference really was a chance to highlight that some European countries have done a lot on restitution, while others have done little. And a lot of my office’s work is taken up with the diplomatic work of encouraging countries to address these Holocaust era issues and of reminding them of America’s interest in these issues. They are important to us, they are issues that we raise consistently with basically all of the countries where the Holocaust took place, where World War II was fought, and even 80, you know, almost 80 years after the end of World War II. There’s still a lot of unfinished business when it comes to restitution and other Holocaust issues in quite a number of countries.
In some countries, the ability to claim restitution or compensation was limited by citizenship and residency requirements that happens; that is the case in Croatia, for example. Or sometimes people faced overly complicated bureaucratic barriers. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belarus, and Ukraine have not passed any legislation for the restitution of private property. And, of course, Ukraine is now facing existential threats that it must address, first off. Romania has Holocaust era private property legislation, but the claims process is incredibly difficult for foreign survivors. And I have gotten letters addressed to me personally from Romanian survivors saying, please, can you help us? Can you help us break through or make our way through these bureaucratic barriers? Poland is the only European Union member state that does not have any kind of comprehensive national legislation for the restitution of private property stemming from the Holocaust era. And Hungary still has quite a bit of work to do on compensation for what is called property without heirs. That is property that was known to belong to Jewish families like businesses or homes, but where the entire family was wiped out. And so there are no survivors.
I was in Lithuania just a couple of months ago in December, in fact, and I saw very clearly how Holocaust issues still influence policy and politics there because the Lithuanian government was in the process of passing legislation that would provide compensation for private property and this property without living heirs that was seized by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And I was there again to do our work of encouraging the Lithuanian parliament and government to do the right thing, which they did. The law was signed into force in December. And while I was there and the conversations that I had with government officials, with members of Parliament and with many others, it was clear that they saw passage of this Holocaust restitution law as part of their country’s commitment to human rights and to rule of law. Similarly, Latvia early last year also passed a restitution law that provided 40 million euros to a fund to support the Jewish community of Latvia. And that is compensation for communal and heirless properties, that again, were stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust. That fund is going to be used to help Holocaust survivors in Latvia to help restore Jewish heritage sites and to support the Jewish communities of Latvia and research into Latvia’s Jewish history.
And that kind of brings us to that other piece that I said I and my office work on, and that is commemoration and education, which is another really important area where Holocaust issues and foreign policy intersect. Accurate and factual commemoration and education of the Holocaust is hugely important because Holocaust distortion can have tremendous negative effects. And I talked about that at the beginning in talking about Russian President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov’s Holocaust distortions in talking about the war in Ukraine. So international collaboration on countering and speaking out against Holocaust distortion and Holocaust denial and on supporting accurate Holocaust commemoration and education is important both in and of itself to study the Holocaust, which was an unprecedented attempt to wipe out European Jewry and wipe out an entire community and society.
But it is also important to study because perhaps there are things that we can learn from this that we can identify factors, social, political, and economic factors that led up to this genocide and can we identify early warning signs? It might be that studying the Holocaust shows us that genocide is a process that maybe can be challenged or stopped in the future, and especially for myself as a diplomat. But I think for, for everyone it is important to try to learn from the past so that we can try to do better the next time around and we can try to do better in the next, from my perspective, international crisis that confronts us. So the United States does a lot of, we do a lot of our work on commemoration and education through the, our membership in international organizations, especially the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is a 35 nation alliance of countries who are committed to supporting accurate Holocaust commemoration and education. And they really do a lot of great work in countering Holocaust distortion and denial in providing toolkits and policy recommendations on how to identify and how to counter Holocaust distortion and denial, and also on how to teach about the Holocaust.
Another way that my office and the US government works on Holocaust commemoration and education issues is through our bilateral initiative. There is a bilateral dialogue on Holocaust issues between the United States and Germany that was launched in 2021 by Secretary of State Lincoln and then German Foreign Minister Moss. And we are working with our German colleagues on trying to identify best practices and innovations in Holocaust education and commemoration, and ways to ensure that Holocaust understanding of Holocaust remains grounded in historical fact. And we are also looking at developing some programs to use the Holocaust as a context to teach government officials and military officials about ethical decision making. How do people learn to do the right thing when confronted by illegal orders or crisis situations where it is not so easy or not so clear to do the right and ethical thing.
And the Holocaust is a really good context to study in order to provoke discussions of what are options, what can you do, what are the possible ways that we as public officials and as individuals can push back when confronted by these types of situations. And so, yes I mean the goal is to try and better prepare public servants to recognize warning signs and as I said, to try to push back when they do appear. So Holocaust distortion is something that we deal with in foreign policy in a number of ways and one of the, the other ways that we have been starting to deal with it recently is in the issue of rehabilitation, which is a question of people, individuals, national heroes in some central Eastern and southern European countries who are viewed as heroes because they fought the Soviets, they fought communism after World War II, but they were also complicit in crimes of Nazi genocide during the Holocaust. And you know, this issue of historical figures who have questionable pasts starts to come out as countries develop their historical narratives. And what we are seeing is some countries have monuments, statues, streets named after these Nazi collaborators who are viewed as heroes because after the war, right, they were anti communists.
Another aspect of rehabilitation or historical revisionism is when countries try to downplay or ignore the role of local collaborators in helping to perpetrate some of the crimes of the Holocaust. And they do this, this gets done as countries are developing a kind of heroic narrative of their history. And so we see this, for example, in Hungary where there are continuing efforts to try to rehabilitate Miklos Horthy’s reputation. He was the leader of Hungary from the 1920s until 1944, but he was also antisemitic and he was complicit in the deportation and murder of Hungary’s Jewish population during the Holocaust. So debates over these issues spill into foreign policy as countries argue with each other about their narratives of World War II and the Holocaust. And I have seen this in international settings where countries still can get very heated and take it very [seriously]. It is a sensitive and very personal issue to government officials and populations when you start talking about, when you raise the specter of collaboration in various countries of Europe during World War II. But when I am confronted with this, I like to say that all countries, especially democracies and including the United States, have to face up to the bad as well as the good in their histories. And one of the things that we do as democracies is we criticize ourselves, we look at what we have done and we say, yeah, okay, we did not do that so well.
And sometimes it takes us a long time to realize that, but we criticize ourselves and we try to do better. And so like with the story that I was telling at the beginning of my talk about how the United States really failed to help refugees who were fleeing Nazi Europe, that is something that we have to face up to. And we cannot do anything about it now, but we can try to learn from it and try to do better. And as I said, I think we are doing, we are doing better. So we often say that the reason we have to teach about the Holocaust is so that we can learn from it. And so that no such depravity ever happens again. And, of course, never again is one of the most important phrases and one of the most important moral lessons that we all draw from studying the Holocaust. Unfortunately, we have all been far from perfect in applying that lesson. Mass atrocities throughout the world since World War II, like the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Darfur, Burma, and Xinjiang now. They show that very clearly.
But we are, as I keep saying, trying to do better, including by trying to bring a measure of justice through, for example, efforts to support war crimes units and international investigative mechanisms and courts like those in The Hague that have been established over the past 20, 30, 40 years. And indeed, even now in Ukraine, we are trying to sort of track and prepare, and collect evidence of what is going on there. The State Department has a bureau of conflict and stabilization operations, which focuses in part on atrocity prevention and atrocity early warning. And that can include things like trying to forecast election violence and preventing the radicalization and recruitment of terrorist groups. One of the tools that we used to do this is the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which was passed by Congress in 2018. And the very name of the act, I think shows the link between efforts to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to current day foreign policy. So the Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act really reaffirms the US government’s commitment to trying to prevent atrocities and to holding perpetrators of those kinds of horrific acts of violence accountable for them. It requires an annual report to Congress that describes US activities and what are we doing in support of atrocity prevention. It mandates atrocity prevention training for foreign service officers, for diplomats like myself who are covering countries that are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing atrocities.
And with the war in Ukraine right now, the United States is supporting a whole range of mechanisms and international inquiries to look into the atrocities that are happening in Ukraine. And we have got, for example, the State Department supported conflict observatory program, which is independently capturing, analyzing, and making public evidence of war crimes and other atrocities that are being committed in Ukraine. And we are committed to holding Russia and Russian-backed forces and whoever is responsible for such atrocities to account, no matter how long it takes, because the people of Ukraine like Holocaust survivors, demand and deserve a measure of justice, they deserve justice. So those are some of our current US efforts to prevent and deter atrocities. We also engage in peacekeeping operations and very importantly, education. For example, the United States supports programs to train teachers from other countries in how to teach about the Holocaust. And we support exchange programs that bring teachers and lawyers and civil society and government officials and others to the United States to learn about confronting antisemitism and confronting Holocaust distortion and denial.
I like to say that commemorating and teaching about the Holocaust means not only teaching the facts of the Holocaust and other genocides and mass killings, but it also means teaching tolerance and inclusivity so that, maybe in the future, people will be less inclined to discriminate against and even kill those who are different from themselves. And there are some studies that show that that kind of education has positive associations, can have positive results. The ADL, the USC Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem did a study in 2020 of American university students. And the survey looked at the relationship between Holocaust education and students’ behavior and attitudes. Students who had received Holocaust education as a required part of their high school classes, not only did better in their historical knowledge of the Holocaust, they also had more pluralistic attitudes and were more open to differing viewpoints, and they were also more willing to challenge intolerant behavior in other people.
Correlation is not cause and effect, of course, but at least results like these give some hope that teaching about the Holocaust can have a positive effect on people’s real life behavior. I will just conclude by saying that the work, the work of my office, the office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, supports US foreign policy goals of sharing our democratic values and promoting rule of law and human rights. And by highlighting the painful lessons of the Holocaust, including the importance of respecting the human rights and dignity of those who are different from us is one of the ways that the United States really tries to ensure that American foreign policy unites our democratic values with our diplomatic leadership and is centered on the defense of democracy and the protection of human rights.
Thank you very much.
Dr. Laura Cohen: Ellen that is tremendous and I am so grateful for your insights. And also, I was thinking as you were speaking about how coming out of the Holocaust, the focus was on creating the machinery for human rights. And so much of our conversations today are focusing on different forms of hatred. I wanted to bring into the conversation now and introduce Dr. David Fry, who is Professor of History and Founding Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he spearheads efforts to increase Academy, Army and Defense Department awareness of and understanding of efforts to prevent mass atrocities. He also serves on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Education Committee and is a steering committee member of the National Consortium of Holocaust Genocide and Human Rights Centers and so David, I would like to turn it over to you to ask the first question.
Dr. David Frey: Well, thank you very much Laura, and thank you very much, Ellen. Laura, I would like to thank you on behalf of all the other organizations that are involved with for putting all of this together, for bringing nine different organizations together, that is no small feat. And Ellen, thank you very much for your talk and for your time. You are a career diplomat, this is, I guess, your 27th year and you have worked in multiple countries, in regions and at organizations that have sadly either been the site of genocide such as Poland and Bosnia, are actively perpetrating mass atrocities such as Russia, or theoretically the world’s hope for preventing these crimes in the future like the UN. How do these countries, regions, and organizations differ in how they have wrestled with lessons of the Holocaust related to justice, reparations, restitution, and memory?
Special Envoy Ellen Germain: Yeah, well, I could spend, you know, hours talking about that. That is a really interesting and complicated question. I will try to just hit a few main points as I think about, right, the places that I have served and some of the things that I have seen and learned from them. My most recent overseas posting just before I took up this position as special envoy was in Sarajevo, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where of course there, the Bosnian war is only what, you know, 30 years in the past, it is still very raw, very present, and the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys is still very much a current and present memory to so many Bosnians. And I have gone to the commemoration and the March of Peace that is done every year on the anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica.
In Bosnia, they are struggling with genocide denial. There are, as you both know very well, still continuing ethnic, constituent people’s tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I mean that there are elements of society and elements of the entity governments that deny that Srebrenica was a genocide despite the fact that the International Court of Justice has determined that it is a genocide. And the facts, like the facts of the Holocaust, are well documented and are there sadly for us to see if we have eyes to look. So it was it was horrifying to see pictures, for example, that were taken of the Srebrenica massacre that, if they had not had captions on them, I might have thought that they were photographs from the Holocaust. Sadly, the images are similar and it really brought home to me that obviously we have not done enough in genocide, in atrocity prevention and early warning, but I think we have learned about taking evidence, trying to establish mechanisms to require accountability, setting up tribunals and also setting up commemorations, learning how to memorialize tragedies so that memorialization can be used both as education and as a tool again to try to learn to do how to do better in the future. So Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is still very present and I think they are still grappling very much with sadly elements that deny that a genocide took place and that is a danger distortion of history that we all need to speak up and speak out against.
Poland, you know, Poland was the site of so much of the Holocaust, the six death camps established by Nazi Germany in German-occupied Poland. They were on the territory of German-occupied Poland. Millions of Jews were killed in Poland. And Poland has done really an excellent job of commemorating and memorializing those sites. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial site is incredibly moving and tells a historically detailed and accurate history. The POLIN museum in Warsaw that tells the history of the Jews in Poland, is another very successful Polish government effort to commemorate the history of the Jews in Poland, the history of a community that was basically wiped out by the Nazis in German-occupied Poland. So, Poland on the one hand has done a very good job of that. On the other hand, Poland still struggles with acknowledging its own history in World War II and the fact that there were Polish collaborators with the Nazis during World War II. And yes, I will just leave it at that because I know you are both, and probably much of the audience is very familiar with, some of the debates that have gone on over the last few years because Poland passed a law in 2018 that made it a crime, it was then reduced to a misdemeanor after much uproar, to say that Poland or Poles perpetrated or were co-perpetrators of the crimes of the Holocaust. And that is something that freezes any kind of historical or academic inquiry and debate into what happened during World War II.
Dr. Laura Cohen: As you were talking about Bosnia, and I remember when we met earlier, maybe it is almost a year ago since we met, we spent a lot of time talking about a lot of the heartache and the challenges for memorialization in Bosnia and Herzegovina. So I have a question for you, and we talked a little bit about this before we met, which is how do you keep top of mind Holocaust issues in an American context where so much of our conversation is around racism. When you and I spoke, we also talked a little bit about what are the differences between your office and the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, and then when we look globally, what is happening on an international scale with the rise in antisemitism. How are you able to keep focus?
Special Envoy Ellen Germain: Well, one of the things that my wonderful colleague, Deborah Lipstadt, who is the Special Envoy for Monitoring and Countering Antisemitism, one of the things that she likes to say is that we cannot fight hatred in silos. Meaning that, you know, yes, we talk about antisemitism, racism, intolerance, we can talk about Holocaust denial, distortion, but these are all forms of hatred and we cannot, and we should not be trying to fight them separately. They are all very sadly interlinked. We have seen that in the United States when we see some of the social media posts that perpetrators of some of the shootings in the last couple of years have been looking at. You know, you see these are, they are looking at social media sites that are propagating racist and antisemitic and sometimes anti-Muslim, other all kinds of hatreds. So to me, countering Holocaust distortion and denial as one piece of what we do is a piece of this overall countering hatred, countering hate speech, countering intolerance that many, many parts of the US government are committed to and are working on. Other parts of our work, work on restitution, work on commemoration, a lot of that is long term. And so it is not the immediate crisis of the day, but it is something that we, as I said, it is an issue that has bipartisan support from Congress, from US administrations, and we keep at it day in and day out, year in and year out, even when there are existential crises around the world, we do not drop our focus on these issues.
Dr. David Frey: There are many more questions that I would like to ask, but I am going to take us in a slightly different direction and ask about how you and your work have begun to incorporate the Roma and the Sinti into the discussion of Holocaust issues that has been a relatively recent development within the past few decades in academia and even later in diplomacy. So how are you starting to engage Roma and Sinti populations?
Special Envoy Ellen Germain: Yes, and that is actually something that I have been wanting to get my team focused more on ever since I started in this position about a year and a half ago. The genocide of the Roma and Sinti is often overlooked or ignored. And so I was in Berlin in December and I actually met with the head of the Roma and Sinti community there and visited their education center and was talking to him and hearing from him how the Roma community really does, feels that genocide has been overlooked. And I learned a huge amount from being there, talking to him, going through the exhibitions.
And it is something that I think we first off need to talk about more. I mean, I and my office and the Secretary of State, when we make statements, when we talk about the Holocaust, for example, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Holocaust is the murder of the 6 million Jews of Europe. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is also an opportunity to, first off, remember the 6 million and to also remember and commemorate the millions of others who suffered and were killed by the Nazis. And that includes hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti, disabled people, LGBTQI individuals, who from the Nazi, you know, the Nazis referred to them as homosexuals because they were mostly focused on gay men. But those are all populations that were targeted by the Nazis, as you know, along with the Jews as being considered “subhuman”. And so we should, yes, we should be remembering all of them.
Dr. Laura Cohen: I guess my last question for you is that we have a wide audience of students and faculty and community members who are joining us, and what is your hope for them in the next like 10 or 15 years. We are really confronting the reality that there will not be Holocaust survivors with us, and it is the mantles taken up by educators and second generation, third generation, fourth generation survivors and people who really care about human rights. What are some things that you would hope that our community would do going forward?
Special Envoy Ellen Germain: Keep telling the stories of the Holocaust. I think that is really important, to me. The individual stories help us get our, help me get my head around that number of 6 million. And so talking, sadly it is going to become eventually impossible to speak with a Holocaust survivor, but we have video testimony, we have, you know, 3D holograms that are being created by some really innovative efforts. So first, keep it in the forefront of education. Keep telling those stories and protect the facts. You know, accuracy is so important because Holocaust distortion and denial are spreading, exacerbated, by the use of social media. It is so much easier to get disinformation out there. So not only education, but also speaking out and speaking up when you see something wrong, when you see disinformation, when you hear someone saying something, you know, antisemitic or something that is a distortion of the Holocaust. Challenge it, speak up about it. That is, you know, that is I think where I would put a lot of emphasis because we cannot just sit idly by and we cannot always make grand gestures, but we can all try to speak up and be more courageous. And it is hard, it can be very hard to challenge these things, but let’s all try and do more of that, that can make a difference.
Dr. Laura Cohen: Thank you. Thank you. David, do you have any closing remarks?
Dr. David Frey: Thank you very much, those words are, my job at West Point is often to try to inspire, in addition to educate. And I think this is one of those ways, and your job in, in a way is to both exhort and expire and inspire, excuse me, the populations that you work with to do probably more than they want. And I think that that is the sentiment that you left us with, is we all have to do more than we are comfortable with and continue to fight against the distortion denial and the misinformation that continues to, and even to the political and I would say economic incentives that people often have to maintain these ruptures that, that genocides bring about in the Holocaust specifically. And so thank you very much for your words, for your time and much appreciated.
Special Envoy Ellen Germain: Well, thank you for giving me the chance to talk about what I do and what the State Department does on Holocaust issues. It is really important for me to try and let you know, Americans understand that this is part of our US government work and part of our foreign policy. So thank you.
Dr. Laura Cohen: Thank you both so much. Thank you, Ellen. Thank you, David. And thank you everyone who has tuned in this evening. On behalf of the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College, we hope you stay safe and well, thank you.
This transcript was provided by the Kupferberg Holocaust Center