Remarks at the NC Holocaust Commemoration
Raleigh, NC - "Has the like of this happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors?" asks the prophet Joel. "Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children, and their children the next generation" (1: 2-3). That is why we gather today: to remember, to speak, to teach and learn.
Each year the Holocaust Museum chooses a theme for special emphasis. This year's theme is "Choosing to Act: Stories of Rescue." One particularly moving story involves the island of Zakynthos in Greece. In September, 1943, Nazi officials ordered the island's mayor, Loukas Karrer, to hand over a list of the 275 Jews living in Zakynthos. Karrer turned to Greek Orthodox Bishop Chrysostomos for help. While the bishop negotiated for their lives, most of the island's Jews fled into the remote mountain villages, where they were hidden by non-Jewish residents. When the Nazi commander again made his demand, Chrysostomos presented a list with just two names – his own and the mayor's. "Here," he said, "are your Jews." A year later, the two men defied another German demand to deport the Jews of Zakynthos. Thanks to the leaders' continued courage and the villagers' steadfast refusal to betray their Jewish neighbors, all of the Jews of Zakynthos survived the war. In the rest of Greece, more than 80 percent of the Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust.
While we are heartened by stories of humanity and courage, we know that for each person who was rescued and survived the Holocaust, countless more were killed. And we understand that in our own day we can best honor the memory of those millions of victims by countering indifference with viligence, and apathy with action.
This inevitably compels our attention to what President Obama at the Holocaust Museum last week referred to as the "madness that can sweep through peoples, sweep through nations and embed itself. The killings in Cambodia, the killings in Rwanda, the killings in Bosnia, the killings in Darfur... the awful extreme of a spectrum of ignorance and intolerance that we see every day."
Sometimes our interventions make a difference. I had a surprisingly hopeful visit to Libya last month, where the efforts of NATO, led by our country, may well have prevented mass killings and have set that country on a still-difficult path toward human rights and democracy. This summer I hope to visit South Sudan, the world's newest country, still in a perilous situation, but the product of determined diplomacy that saved thousands of lives. On that same occasion at the Holocaust Museum last week, Elie Wiesel spoke out about Syria and the horrors being perpetrated at this moment against its people by the Assad regime. The Syrian situation is about as complicated and difficult as international diplomacy can get, but we and our allies have tools at our disposal, and we must work tirelessly to use them with effect.
Thank you again to the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust for bringing us together on this occasion that compels us to remember, to speak, to teach and learn – and to search our minds and hearts to discern ways large and small that each of us may act on our resolve, "Never again."