Remarks at the North Carolina Holocaust Commemoration
Raleigh, NC - “From my favorite spot on the floor,” Anne Frank wrote in her diary 70 years ago, “I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree on whose branches little rain drops shine, appearing like silver, and at the sea gulls and other birds as they glide on the wind….I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”
The secret annex to 188 Keizersgracht, where Anne and her family spent two years in hiding, had a single window to the outside world. Anne was comforted by the tree she saw through that window; it provided for her a powerful contrast to the Holocaust unfolding beyond. “As long as this exists,” she wrote of the sky, birds, and tree, “how can I be sad?” And as war closed in on Anne and her family, the tree became a vivid reminder that a better world was possible.
That tree succumbed to disease and a windstorm a few years ago. But the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam had the foresight to gather saplings. One of these was planted on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol this past week, and I was able to attend the moving commemorative ceremony.
Such an occasion brings forth a flood of emotions. We marvel at Anne’s question, “How can I be sad?”, finding the story inexpressibly sad. Yet we are also drawn to the story for its beauty, the spirit it captures of a young girl who simply would not allow darkness and evil to conquer her soul.
We are inspired by Anne Frank, and her tree will enable visitors to Washington, particularly young people, to be reminded of her story. It is a story, however, that must not be sentimentalized, a realization that confronts us as we contemplate this year’s theme from the Holocaust Museum: “Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses.” This account reads very differently from the story of the chestnut tree, but in reality the two complement each other in essential ways. The darkness, the evil, that closed in on Anne Frank and her family and the millions of victims left her reaching for glimmers of light and hope. Others, however, had more choices, more ability to resist and even to turn back the horror. Some performed heroic acts, from hiding families like the Franks to attempting to assassinate Adolph Hitler. But others floundered and failed, and those included our own government—in 1939, for example, when the MS St. Louis carrying 937 desperate refuges, was forbidden to land; and in 1944, late in the war, when our War Refugee Board helped save some 200,000 Hungarian Jews but had an impact too “late and little,” as its director said, for hundreds of thousands of others.
These two complementary accounts speak to what we take away from this Holocaust observance each year. In poems, songs, and drama we recognize the inextinguishability of the human spirit. But we are moved to sober and realistic reflection as to how and why the horrors of the Holocaust unfolded in the heart of Europe. “What were the warning signs?” we ask, and “Could the world ever let this happen again?” I’m afraid we know the answer, as we anticipate the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide—where 800,000 were murdered within 100 days—and as we witness horrific slaughter in Syria and the Central African Republic and seek to avert the same in South Sudan. It is often difficult to intervene effectively, but as long as genocide remains a threat, we must ask ourselves about the consequences of action—and of inaction. That is how we strive to fulfill the promise of Never Again.