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60th Anniversary of Liberation of Nazi Camps

Presenter: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz
January 24, 2005

            Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, distinguished delegates, distinguished guests.

 

            Thank you, Mr. President for convening this 28th Special Session and thank you to the member states that supported the request for commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.

Thank you Mr. Secretary-General for your eloquent statement today and for your encouragement of this initiative.

Thank you, Sir Brian Urquhart for your service in the war and your witness here today.

And our special gratitude goes to Elie Wiesel, not only for his inspiring words today, but for all he has taught us with his life. Elie Wiesel has taught us that “in extreme situations when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is a sin. It helps the killers,” he says, “not the victims.”

Elie Wiesel teaches us that we must speak about unspeakable deeds, so that they will be neither forgotten nor repeated. Most of all, he offers personal witness to all humanity that in the face of the most horrific oppression, there is always hope that the goodness of the human spirit will prevail.

That is the larger meaning of why we gather here today. We’re here to reflect on the magnitude of the occasion, how totalitarian evil claimed millions of precious lives. But just as important, the member nations attending today are affirming their rejection of such evil and making a statement of hope for a more civilized future, a hope that “never again” will the world look the other way in the face of such evil.

For if there is one thing the world has learned, it is that peaceful nations cannot close their eyes or sit idly by in the face of genocide. It took a war, the most terrible war in history, to end the horrors that we remember today. It was a war that Winston Churchill called “The Unnecessary War” because he believed that a firm and concerted policy by the peaceful nations of the world could have stopped Hitler early on. But it was a war that became necessary to save the world from what he correctly called “the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister … by the lights of a perverted science.”

This truth we also know: that war, even a just and noble war, is horrible for everyone it touches. War is not something Americans seek, nor something we will ever grow to like. Throughout our history, we have waged it reluctantly, but we have pursued it as a duty when it was necessary.

Our own Civil War was one of the bloodiest the world had known up to its time. And it too was fought to end a great evil. As that war was nearing its bloody close, President Abraham Lincoln spoke to the nation hoping that the war would end soon, but saying that, it would continue if necessary “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Two months after the Battle of Antietam, where the number of American dead was four times the number that fell on the beaches of Normandy, President Lincoln told members of the U.S. Congress that those who “hold the power, and bear the responsibility” could not escape the burden of history, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

Americans have fought often to liberate others from slavery and tyranny in order to protect our own freedom. Cemeteries from France to North Africa, with their rows of Christian crosses and Stars of David, attest to that truth.

When Americans have taken up arms, it was believing that, in the end, it is never just about us alone, knowing that woven into our liberty is a mantle of responsibility, knowing that the whole world benefits when people are free to realize their dreams and develop their talents.

Today, we remember the people who fell victim to tyranny because of their political views, their ethnic heritage or their religion, in places where human slaughter was perfected as an efficient and systematic industry of state. We can only imagine how different our lives would be had those millions of lost souls had the chance to live out their dreams.

Today, we also pay tribute to all the soldiers of many Allied nations who participated in the liberation of the Nazi death camps, for their courage and sacrifice and for the care they provided to the survivors.

We are proud of the role of our own American soldiers, the so-called “young old men” of 19 and 20 years of age, who and fought through their own horrors at Anzio and Normandy and Bastogne and who thought that a world of evil no longer held surprises for them, but who were astonished to the depth of their souls when they confronted the human ruins of Nazi tyranny in the spring of 1945.

Just one week before the end of the war in Europe, the U.S. Seventh Army would reach Dachau. Lt. Colonel Walther Fellenz described what he saw as the 42nd Infantry Division neared the main gate of that concentration camp.  It was “a mass of cheering, half-mad men, women and children … their liberators had come! The noise was beyond comprehension,” he said. And “our hearts wept as we saw the tears of happiness fall from their cheeks.”

Sensing the approach of victory, General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, was unprepared for what greeted him at the camp at Ohrdruf.  As he walked past thousands of corpses in shallow graves and saw the instruments of torture used by the SS, he was moved—to anger and to action.

He cabled Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall words which are now engraved at the entrance of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington: “The things I saw,” Eisenhower wrote, “beggar description … the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering.” He insisted on looking into one particular room that contained piles of skeletal, naked men, killed through starvation. “I made the visit deliberately,” he said, “in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to ‘propaganda.’”

Eisenhower wanted others to see this crime against humanity. So, he urged American Congressmen and journalists to go to the camps. He directed that a film record the reality and that it be shown widely to German citizens. And he ordered that as many GIs as possible see the camps. American soldiers became what one writer called “reluctant archeologists of man’s most inhuman possibilities.”

Jack Hallet, one of the soldiers who liberated Dachau, found that it was difficult to separate the living from the dead. As he looked closer at a stack of corpses, he noticed that deep within the pile, he could see sets of eyes still blinking.

Dan Evers was in the 286th Combat Engineer Battalion at Dachau: “The gas chamber door was closed,” he recalled, “but the ovens were still open. There was a sign in German overhead which said: ‘Wash your hands after work.’”

Another soldier wrote to his parents, asking them to keep his letter, because “it is my personal memorandum of something I personally want to remember but would like to forget.”

From Ebensee, Captain Timothy Brennan of the Third Cavalry wrote to his wife and child: “You cannot imagine that such things exist in a civilized world.”

From Mauthausen in Austria, Sergeant Fred Friendly wrote to his mother: “I want you to never forget or let our disbelieving friends forget, that your flesh and blood saw this…Your son saw this with his own eyes and in doing so aged 10 years.”

Beyond the shock and horror, American and Russian and other Allied soldiers who liberated the camps were also witnesses to hope. Tomorrow, you will have the opportunity to hear an American GI tell one such story. Tomorrow Lt. John Withers, of the all African-American Quartermaster Truck Company 3512, will speak about how he and his soldiers changed forever the lives of two young boys who were rescued from Dachau.

Yet, as proud as we are of the role our soldiers played in the liberation of the concentration camps, we know that we all arrived too late for most of the victims.

Just last week, a great Polish patriot passed away. During World War II, Jan Nowak, who was not Jewish, risked his life to leave Poland to bring news of the Nazi genocide to the West. I was privileged to meet Jan Nowak in his Warsaw apartment just three months ago. He recalled that after the war when he was able to see the records of his secret meetings with Western officials, there was no mention of what he had told them about Poland’s Jews. Nowak put it down to “wartime inconvenience.” He was telling truths that people wanted not to know.

And, despite our fervent promises never to forget, we know that there have been far too many occasions in the six decades since the liberation of the concentration camps, when the world ignored inconvenient truths so that it would not have to act, or acted too late.

We have agreed today to set aside contemporary political issues, in order to reflect on those events of sixty years ago in a spirit of unanimity. But let us do so with a unanimous resolve to give real meaning to those words “never forget.” And with a resolve that even when we may find it difficult to act, we at least have an obligation to face the truth.

Last Thursday, as he began his second term in office, President George Bush expressed his belief that our nation’s interests cannot be separated from the aspirations of others to be free from tyranny and oppression. “America’s vital interests,” he said, “and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.”

Americans remain committed to working with all nations of good will to alleviate the suffering of our time. And we remain hopeful that when generations to come look back on this time they will see that we in it were dedicated to fulfilling the pledge that arose from the ashes of man’s inhumanity toward man:  never again.

Never again and never forget. We must keep remembering.  We must continue to speak about unspeakable things. So we commend the United Nations for a remembrance of the Holocaust befitting its significance in human history. In doing so, perhaps we can help avoid such inhumanity and the warfare that marches along with it.

Thank you very much.

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