Thank you; I’m delighted to be here. First, I want to thank the Yashek family for making this lecture possible. I’m grateful to Amanda Hornberger, of the Jewish Federation of Reading and the Lakin Holocaust Library and Resource Center, for her work on organizing this; and to my childhood friend, Carole Robinson, also of the Jewish Federation of Reading, for making the connection that gave me the chance to be with you here tonight.
I’m often asked why the State Dept. has an office of Holocaust Issues. In this talk I’ll try to answer that question, and talk about how Holocaust issues manifest themselves today in foreign policy issues. This has all become even more timely as we see Russian President Putin’s false claims that Ukraine is a hotbed of neo-Nazism and that genocide is being committed there, which he’s using to try to justify his premeditated and unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
Let’s start with a little history. In the wake of the devastation of World War Two and the horrors of the Holocaust, leaders around the world came together to create a rules-based international order, based on democratic values. The goal was to advance human rights, promote peaceful settlement of disputes, and ensure adherence to international law. The United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Council of Europe, the International Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights . . . all these can be traced back to the aftermath of World War Two and the Holocaust. The United States of course was a founder of the UN; Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Out of all this sprang some fundamental concepts of international human rights law and crimes against humanity. The word “genocide” was coined in the 1940s by lawyer Rafael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis and spent the rest of his life working to prevent crimes against humanity such as genocide.
When I joined the State Department, the orientation course for new foreign service officers – diplomats – included a visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. As part of that, we were taken to see the display about the St. Louis, the German ship carrying 937 German Jews seeking refuge in May, 1939. The ship was turned away from Cuba and the United States and returned to Europe, where many of the passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.
Why was this a focus of our visit? Because while diplomats deal with current foreign policy issues, our work should be informed by our understanding and knowledge of the past, so we can try to do better in the future.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, himself the stepson of a Holocaust survivor, talked last year about the State Department’s initial failure to help refugees from Nazi Europe. He referred to an exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum called “Americans and the Holocaust.” That exhibit – which is still running – has a section about what the State Department – and the rest of the U.S. government – did and did not do during WW2 to help Jews trying to flee the Nazis.
One story it highlights is about Breckenridge Long, an assistant secretary at the State Department. Long oversaw immigration and refugee policy, including the issuing of visas, for countries impacted by the war. He had immense power to help those being persecuted. Yet as the Nazis began to systematically round up and execute Jews, Long made it harder and harder for Jews to be granted refuge in the United States. He established onerous security checks, claiming they were necessary to prevent enemy spies from infiltrating the U.S., even though there was no evidence that refugees posed that risk.
Long didn’t hide what he was doing. One memo from June 1940 read, “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
And Long did even more. He blocked cables – reports – that described the mass killing, because he was afraid they would increase pressure for America to take in more Jews. He lied to Congress. He told Congress the State Department was doing everything in its power to rescue Jews from Europe, and that the U.S. had admitted 580,000 Jewish refugees, when we had only taken in around 138,000.
And Long did not act alone. Others at the State Department helped him write and implement his policies. Still others sat by silently while Long created more restrictions and delays.
But some in the U.S. government did push back. A group of determined officials at the Treasury Department came up with payments to evacuate thousands of Jews in Romania and France who faced execution. After countless obstructions from officials like Long, they decided to appeal to President Roosevelt. They produced a document titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews,” which laid out in devastating detail the State Department’s refusal to help Jews. It 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.”
Six days later, Roosevelt announced the creation of the War Refugee Board in January 1944, whose goal was to pursue “the immediate rescue and relief of the Jews of Europe and other victims of enemy persecution.” And the board went on to rescue tens of thousands of Jews and help hundreds of thousands more. But by then, more than four million Jews had already been murdered. From 1933 to 1943, America’s immigration quotas permitted accepting 1.5 million people. We admitted fewer than 480,000 people. More than a million slots were unfilled, as thousands of Jews were murdered every day.
We should never forget the way individuals can make entire systems, from top to bottom, tilt toward the inhumane; and how the sanitized language of cables, briefings, and regulations can be used to turn away people we should help. And we must also not forget that individuals, armed with the truth and their convictions, can use those same mechanisms to save lives.
We’re trying to better with the current refugee crisis in Europe. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine we’re now seeing the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War 2. Since last month, the U.S. has provided $293 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Congress has put forward $13 billion for Ukraine, of which more than $4 billion will go to humanitarian assistance. Ukraine’s neighbors in Europe are generously welcoming and supporting refugees. The United States will do our part to help those governments and the humanitarian organizations on the ground meet this tremendous need.
So, again, it’s important that our current foreign policy work be informed by our understanding and knowledge of the past, so we can do better in the future.
And part of our current foreign policy is the work of the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues. The mission of my office is to seek a measure of justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Why is this a foreign policy issue? Because it’s a human rights issue and a rule of law issue of international dimensions.
And of course, with the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine, we are again reminded of the horrors of war and the moral necessity of providing a measure of justice to all victims, past and present.
So in trying to achieve some justice for Holocaust victims, how do we try to accomplish our mission? Our work encompasses two main areas, restitution and commemoration.
Restitution or Compensation
Restitution or compensation involves encouraging governments to find ways to return or compensate for property seized in the Holocaust.
- Encouraging foreign governments to do the right thing is part of the U.S. commitment to supporting democracy and promoting human rights and rule of law.
- We don’t deal with individual claims; rather, encourage countries to pass laws, set up processes so people can submit claims.
• Not just for private houses/apts; also communal/religious property and heirless property; and moveable property – art.
In 2020, the State Department produced a landmark report on Holocaust restitution and remembrance known as the JUST Act Report to Congress. This report built on the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust-era Assets. It assessed what 46 nations who had endorsed the Terezin Declaration were doing in terms of legislation for restitution or compensation for Holocaust-era property. It also reviewed the steps taken by countries to support Holocaust remembrance as well as to protect Holocaust history, broaden education, and provide access to archives and research.
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.
Some European countries have done a lot, some countries have done little. Much of my office’s work is taken up with the diplomatic work of encouraging countries to address these Holocaust-era restitution issues. Even almost 80 years after the end of WW2, there are still numerous outstanding restitution issues in a variety of countries. But U.S. engagement has also resulted in successes over the past year.
- Luxembourg agreed to settle heirless and communal property claims, establish an education center, and set up a process for settling insurance, dormant bank account, and art claims.
- Germany agreed to provide more than $653 million to needy Holocaust survivors worldwide, one-time payments for pandemic needs, and first-time pensions for some specific categories of Holocaust survivors.
- Netherlands Railways, which profited from transporting Jews to concentration camps during WWII, compensated survivors of deportation and contributed to memorials for the more than 100,000 Dutch Jews who died after being transported.
- The Netherlands also changed its art restitution policy to no longer favor the rights of the country’s museums over the owners from whom the artwork had been confiscated during the Nazi era.
- Latvia’s president just last month signed into legislation an agreement to set up a $40 million fund as compensation for communal and heirless property. I visited Latvia last year to underline the importance of this issue to the United States. The Jewish Community of Latvia says this agreement concludes all outstanding restitution claims. The fund will provide welfare assistance to Holocaust survivors in Latvia, support preservation of cultural and historical Latvian Jewish heritage sites, and support the Jewish communities in Latvia.
The U.S. has also hosted important negotiations with Germany, Austria, France, and other countries on behalf of survivors.
The other very important part of our work is commemoration and education. Accurate and factual commemoration and education about the Holocaust is crucially important, because Holocaust distortion can have tremendous negative effects, as I’ll discuss in more depth a little later on. We also promote Holocaust commemoration and education so we can learn from the past and try to do better. To do that we work closely with:
- The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- We work with international organizations like the 35-nation International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that today leads the fight against Holocaust distortion and denial and is a major proponent of Holocaust education. IHRA is doing excellent work developing tools and resources for teaching about the Holocaust, identifying/countering Holocaust distortion and denial.
- We work with archives like the Arolsen Archives in Germany, which holds documents on some 17.5 million individuals killed or persecuted at Nazi death and concentration camps across Europe. We actively support Arolsen’s outreach, through programs like
• #StolenMemory: U.S. has paid for a traveling exhibit to Eastern Germany and Poland that carries artifacts – mementos like watches, wedding rings, photos – from Hol survivors and forced laborers gathered after WW2 from concentration camps. Goal is to try to reunite the artifacts with their owners’ descendants. More than 500 returned.
• #EveryNameCounts: Students and others can volunteer to become amateur archivists with the Arolsen Archives on Nazi Persecution by joining the #EveryNameCounts crowd-sourcing project that lets you “get your hands on history” by transcribing actual Nazi concentration camp records. It’s amazing what you can do! Ritualized commemorations often mean little. This is direct form of engagement in remembrance and standing up for tolerance and diversity.
Projects like these help people understand the lasting effect of the Holocaust by directly engaging them in activities that educate and promote commemoration. That kind of direct engagement is especially important for young people, who often don’t have the chance to meet a survivor and hear directly from him or her, which is one of the most effective ways to promote understanding of the Holocaust. And of course, the number of survivors is inevitably dwindling, and they are less and less able to engage in direct conversations and meetings.
We also work through foreign policy initiatives like the U.S.-Germany Dialogue on Holocaust Issues, launched last year by Secretary of State Blinken and then-German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. We are working together to ensure an accurate understanding of the Holocaust, the forces that brought it about, and its tragic consequences, in order to better prepare our public servants and the general public to recognize the warning signs and push back when they appear.
Complacency and lack of preparedness allowed the rise of fascism and racism that led to the Holocaust. We are committed to doing better today. Germany and the United States can stand together as transatlantic partners to ensure such atrocities never again occur.
We’re developing tools and best practices to share with other governments to help them improve education and training on the Holocaust, counter Holocaust denial and distortion, combat anti-Semitism, and ensure policymakers have a strong understanding of these issues and of their responsibility to act.
In short, the Office of Holocaust Issues supports USG goals of sharing our democratic values and promoting rule of law and human rights. We use our relationships with allies and partners to develop and maintain relationships with countries to coalesce around a shared desire to provide justice and redress the wrongs of the Holocaust.
The importance of upholding these democratic values in our foreign policy is very clear from the horrifying situation in Ukraine right now. President Putin’s claim that Ukraine is a hotbed of Nazism is a blatant fabrication and yet another of the false pretexts for his war of choice. This is not the first time the Kremlin has cynically accused its neighbors of neo-Nazism and fascism. Not only is Putin’s accusation against Ukraine and its government a lie, but his disinformation detracts from serious, critically-important worldwide efforts to combat antisemitism, Holocaust distortion, and other dangerous forms of racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism. Russia is also manufacturing events and creating false narratives of genocide to justify greater use of military force.
The Kremlin’s efforts to exploit the Holocaust and use false charges of fascism as a pretext for its own brutality and abuses show how serious a problem Holocaust distortion has become. Passage of a UN General Assembly resolution on combating Holocaust denial and distortion on January 20, which was cosponsored by 114 countries, is more evidence of the importance of the issue to the international community.
According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “Holocaust distortion acknowledges aspects of the Holocaust as factual. It nevertheless excuses, minimizes, or misrepresents the Holocaust in a variety of ways and through various media.”
One example of Holocaust distortion is the rehabilitation of people who played roles in committing the crimes of the Holocaust. This can happen as countries develop their historical narratives. Some historical figures, like Jonas [YO-nas] Noreika in Lithuania and Roman Shukhevych in Ukraine, are considered national heroes because they fought against Soviet tyranny, but they also collaborated with the Nazis. Some countries have named sports stadiums after Nazi collaborators. But all countries, the United States included, need to face up to the reality of their history, both the bad as well as the good – for example, as in acknowledging that before and during World War 2, the United States made it difficult for hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Europe, including Jews fleeing the Holocaust, to enter the United States.
Another example of Holocaust distortion is the use of Holocaust imagery or language for political or ideological purposes. This can trivialize and demean the Holocaust. A current example is the yellow stars worn by anti-COVID vaccination protestors in the United States and Europe. The Nazis forced Jews to wear yellow stars of David on their clothing so they could be easily identified in order to harass and isolate Jews, force them into ghettos, round them up, deport them, and kill them. It’s crazy to have to say this, but that is not comparable to the inconvenience of not being allowed to enter a restaurant because you choose not to be vaccinated. Some politicians in both the United States and Europe have compared COVID-19 restrictions to the persecutions suffered by the Jews in the Holocaust.
These false comparisons distort the Holocaust’s significance as a uniquely horrific effort to systematically annihilate an entire people. They harm our democratic institutions by comparing measures taken to protect public health and save lives to measures taken by the Nazis to cold-bloodedly target and murder six million Jews.
Countering Holocaust denial and distortion, including at the policy level, matters because they
- further perpetuate antisemitism.
- can fan the flames of violent extremism.
- threaten our ability to understand and learn from the history of the Holocaust.
We often say that we must teach about the Holocaust and learn from it so that no such depravity is ever permitted to happen again. “Never again” is one of the most important moral lessons the world can draw from the Holocaust.
But the world has been far from perfect in applying this lesson – mass atrocities throughout the world, such as the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Darfur, Burma, and Xinjiang show that very clearly. But we are trying to do better, including by bringing a measure of justice through efforts to support war crimes units, and international investigative mechanisms and courts like those in The Hague.
In fact, the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations focuses in part on atrocity early warning, which can include things like forecasting election violence and preventing the radicalization and recruitment of terrorist groups. One of its tools is the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, passed by Congress in 2018. The very name of the act shows the link between efforts to apply lessons from the Holocaust to current-day foreign policy. The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act reaffirms the U.S. government commitment to preventing atrocities and holding perpetrators of these horrific acts of violence accountable. It requires an annual report to Congress describing U.S. government actions in support of atrocity prevention, and mandates atrocity prevention training to equip Foreign Service officers covering countries experiencing – or at risk of experiencing – atrocities.
Just two days ago, on Monday (3/21/22), Secretary of State Blinken visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and announced that the United States has determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya. He made that announcement at the Holocaust Museum because the lessons of the Holocaust should help us do better today.
On Ukraine, President Biden said last week that, in his opinion, war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. Intentional targeting of civilians is a war crime. We continue to see very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians, which would constitute a war crime. These reports include strikes hitting schools, hospitals, and residential buildings. Civilian buses, cars, and even ambulances have been shelled.
The United States is supporting a range of mechanisms to document and pursue accountability for potential war crimes or other atrocities in Ukraine. This includes supporting Ukraine’s authorities, who are already working to document potential atrocity crimes for prosecution. It also includes supporting a range of international investigative and accountability mechanisms. And it includes supporting the important work of human rights documenters in Ukraine. We are committed to pursuing accountability for such acts using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions where appropriate. We welcome the International Criminal Court’s announcement to open an investigation into this situation.
U.S. efforts to prevent and deter atrocities also include peacekeeping operations; and importantly, education. For example, the United States supports programs to train teachers to teach about the Holocaust and supports exchange programs for teachers, civil society, law enforcement, and others to learn about confronting antisemitism and Holocaust distortion and denial.
Commemorating and teaching about the Holocaust is one way to help safeguard against something like that happening again. Education about it is one element in helping prevent serious human rights violations.
Education means not only teaching the facts of the Holocaust and other genocides and mass killings, but also teaching tolerance and inclusivity, so that – maybe – in the future people will be less inclined to discriminate against and otherwise harm or even kill those who are different from them.
And that kind of education has been shown to have positive associations. The Anti-Defamation League, the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation, and Yad Vashem did a survey in 2020 of American university students. The survey looked at the relationship between Holocaust education and students’ behavior and attitudes. Students who had received Holocaust education in 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.” They were also more willing to challenge intolerant behavior in other people. Correlation is not cause and effect, of course, but those survey results at least offer some hope that teaching about the Holocaust can have positive effects on people’s behavior in the real world.
Freedom of Speech
One of the real challenges in countering Holocaust denial and distortion is that such efforts inevitably get caught up in debates about freedom of expression.
- Many European countries have laws criminalizing Holocaust denial and promotion of Nazi ideology.
- The United States, on the other hand, does not criminalize hate speech of any kind, including Holocaust denial and promotion of Nazi ideology, as odious as it may be.
In fact, in the United States, of course, the First Amendment broadly protects speech, including offensive speech, from government regulation.
Indeed, in the United States’ tradition, the answer to bad speech – including racist, antisemitic, Holocaust denying and distorting speech – is not government intervention or censorship, but more speech; speech that promotes tolerance and counters lies with facts.
We’re seeing Holocaust distortion today being exacerbated, and amplified, through the use of digital tools and the ease with which misinformation and disinformation can be spread on social media platforms.
Internet and social media platforms are now the subject of debate about regulation of content. In the United States, social media platforms are not liable for content posted by third parties. We can ask, should social media companies be responsible for the information that people post on their sites? Governments around the world are trying to figure out how to deal with these thorny questions while respecting and protecting freedom of expression.
In the meantime, some platforms have taken some actions against online Holocaust denial and distortion. In late 2020, Facebook finally agreed to take down posts that deny or distort the Holocaust and to direct users to authoritative sources when they search for information. By the way, I tested that out myself by searching for “Holocaust,” and “Holocaust hoax” on Facebook and each time I was directed to reliable sources. Twitter followed Facebook’s lead and banned Holocaust denial posts. But everyone acknowledges that it’s extremely difficult to find and remove all instances of Holocaust distortion and, denial.
We should also acknowledge that online platforms can be powerful tools for spreading truth. They pose a challenge to authoritarian regimes and can help amplify voices of peaceful dissent. Russia last year fined Google $100 million for “systematic failure to remove banned content,” which included posts related to the peaceful political opposition, and it’s now engaged in a full assault on media freedom, access to information, and the truth. Moscow’s efforts to mislead the people of Russia and the world and to suppress the truth about what Russia’s government is doing in Ukraine are intensifying. The Russian government has taken recent actions to prevent the people of Russia from accessing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, numerous Russian and international news sites, and certain mobile applications.
Other countries also try to block the truth. The People’s Republic of China has sophisticated controls to block websites and censor content, including about the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang. And so, while the Internet and social media help spread Holocaust denial and distortion, they also make it easier to publicly spread accessible, accurate information about the Holocaust and to disseminate important information about serious violations of human rights.
Holocaust denial and distortion not only deny and distort historical fact, they are antithetical to our democratic values. Accurate historical education and truthful commemoration of the Holocaust teach new generations about our past, and the horrors to which unbridled hate can lead.
As a recent U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum report put it, “the collective memory of two world wars and the Holocaust played a key role in driving the creation of global, transatlantic, and European institutions designed to protect peace, security, and human dignity. Holocaust distortion and related misuses of history for political purposes inevitably undermine the justification and the defense of these institutions and the principles on which they are based.”
So what can we all do about this? Be a critical thinker and speak out. When you see a misleading or false message on social media about the Holocaust or using Nazi swastikas, ask why it was posted and by whom. While people like me work to ensure that U.S. foreign policy supports and reflects American democratic values, we can’t do it alone.
Everyone can help, as the incredible response to Ukraine’s plight demonstrates. We must do all we can, every day, to counter Holocaust denial and distortion, and other modern manifestations of antisemitism and other forms of hate. We must stand up for the truth and promote the accurate and truthful history of the horrors of the Holocaust. We must highlight the painful lessons of the Holocaust, including the importance of respecting the human rights and dignity of people who are different from us. That is the only way we will ever fulfill our solemn pledge of “never again” – and it’s one of the ways we can 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.