Remarks at the Observance of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust at UN Headquarters

Ambassador Michele J. Sison
U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
January 27, 2017


Thank you, Under-Secretary-General Gallach. And thank you also to Secretary-General Guterres, President of the General Assembly Thomson, and Ambassador Danon for your inspiring remarks. I am profoundly moved by your words, and I am profoundly honored to be with all of you here today, to our keynote speaker and Holocaust survivor Mr. Noah Klieger who will address us in a few minutes, and to everyone joining us here today.

On January 27, 1945 – as we all know,71 years ago today – the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. By then, the Nazis had murdered at least 960,000 Jews at Auschwitz alone. As the Soviets approached, the Nazis at Auschwitz made a last-ditch effort to hide their monstrous crimes. The Nazis destroyed camp buildings, and sent tens of thousands of Jews and other prisoners on “death marches” toward other camps that the Nazis still controlled. But the truth was plain to see when Auschwitz was liberated. Several thousand Jews were left at the camp – malnourished, starving, and desperately ill – but alive, and capable of telling their story. Survivors like Bart Stern, who recalled “hiding out in the heap of dead bodies,” dead bodies that piled up when the crematorium stopped working in the days before Soviet soldiers arrived. The physical evidence was there too, and it was unequivocal. One of the warehouses left behind contained personal effects from the victims, including hundreds of thousands of men’s suits and women’s outfits, and 14,000 pounds of hair shaved off the prisoners as they arrived. The Nazis could not cover up their infrastructure for murder.

By April 1945, the full scale of the Nazi killing machine became clear as Allied forces came upon concentration camp after concentration camp. Arriving with U.S. forces at Buchenwald, journalist Edward R. Murrow reported on the horror of seeing hundreds of children with tattooed numbers on their arms and their ribs poking through the rags they were wearing. At Bergen-Belsen, UK Army Chaplain T.J. Stretch explained on camera, “This morning we buried over five thousand bodies. We don’t know who they are.” He continued, “Behind me, you can see a pit which will contain another five thousand.” Indeed, the liberators could scarcely describe the depths of the cruelty they witnessed.

So when we gather every year here in this chamber, we are not just mourning the victims of this Nazi genocide, and honoring those who survived. We are, in fact, renewing our own commitment not to let these memories of the Holocaust ever, ever fade. We are renewing our own commitment to pass this history from one generation to the next, especially as there are fewer and fewer individuals who can share their firsthand experiences. We are renewing our own commitment not to allow the moral outrage that G.I.s felt when they first entered the concentration camps, or the fortitude – the fortitude of those who managed to survive the camps against all odds – to ever dim with the passing of time.

Then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized the importance of bearing witness, as we do here today. As Eisenhower wrote to General George Marshall when he visited the Ohrdruf concentration camp on April 12, 1945, “The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were…overpowering…I made the visit deliberately to give firsthand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’” So, we remember the Holocaust here today to fight against this same tendency that so concerned General Eisenhower.

But we also remember for another reason. We remember because of the reality that the Holocaust was a man-made evil. Adolf Hitler and his deputies conceived of the ideology to denigrate Jews, they created the propaganda to encourage citizens to stay silent as the SS took away neighbors and colleagues, and they built the ghettos and concentration camps to enable the slaughter of six million. We now recognize as heroic the small number of individuals who showed the extraordinary courage to save as many people as they could from the Nazis. But most people said and did nothing. That is the behavior the Holocaust teaches us never to repeat, the reason we focus so much on educating future generations about the Holocaust.

So we commemorate the Holocaust to remind ourselves of how we must act. The Holocaust will always remain in a category of evil unto itself. Yet man-made atrocities still surround us. Places like Syria, South Sudan, and the Lake Chad Basin that demand our collective action here at the United Nations to stop overwhelming human suffering. And there are far too many places where anti-Semitism is again on the rise, where attackers have vandalized Jewish homes and businesses, or assaulted Jews coming to and from synagogues. When we think about the Holocaust, we need to remind ourselves never to overlook or normalize these trends – never to be the bystanders.

As the late and incomparable Elie Wiesel wrote in Night, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.” This is the memory we preserve, friends, by gathering here today. And this is the memory that should drive our actions – our actions – in the present. Thank you.