Good morning. I thank you all for inviting me to join you today and I regret that I cannot be there in person.
It is my honor and privilege to represent the United States at many events, even at this somber and solemn occasion.
I know you share this solemnity. “Teaching about the Holocaust and Human Rights” is an incredible task. The importance of teaching students about the terrible events of the last century cannot be overstated. Thank you for assuming this obligation and know that you have my appreciation and that of countless Americans and our partners as you undertake it. Teaching the Shoah is as important today as it ever has been, perhaps even more so as we daily lose the voices of the survivors who inform us and who’s very being is a reminder of both the depths of human depravity and the indominable spirit and will to live in spite of it.
I recently returned from Iasi. I traveled there to pay my, and my nation’s, respects to the innocents murdered in the horrific pogrom unleashed on that city eighty years ago. In reflecting upon that singularly horrifying—though sadly not unique—history, I remembered the words of the brilliant Polish-American lawyer Raphael Lemkin; the man who coined the word ‘genocide.’ He wrote of our tendency to simplify genocide and mass atrocity. Sadly, he was correct.
We see this tendency still today…dismissal, fault shifting, and debate over whether an atrocity meets the definition of genocide. But there is nothing simple about this crime. It is as complex as it is insidious, and it is systematic and rooted in historical ignorance. Genocide was not an evil gift bestowed upon humanity by a single nation. The crime’s history long pre-dates its having been given a name. To simplify it is to do the victims of this evil a great disservice. We must look beyond 1941. Without the context of the pogroms that ravaged this same land in the 1760s or the early 19th Century would these more modern crimes have been possible? We need to understand it, we need be vigilant against it, and we must do everything within our human capacity to mean it when we say, “Never Again.”
This is precisely why courses such as this are central to all we do and to all of us. I am incredibly proud of our partnership with the Elie Wiesel Institute and others on Holocaust education and increasing tolerance. But you hearing me today are teachers and we will never directly reach the countless lives you help shape through education. It is incumbent upon you all to impart the overarching wisdom and the individual vignettes that you will learn through this course and through working alongside entities such as the Olga Lengyel Institute. That is how we ensure the lessons of our recent past are not forever lost. How else will we know the systemic devaluation and dehumanization of others around us if we do now know its signs and harbingers.
Thank you for what you do, thank you to the Olga Lengyel Institute, the Elie Wiesel Institute, and all who strive to make sure the lessons of our past are not forgotten.