Today, President Barack Obama gave a speech to the Holocaust Days of Remembrance Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. The entire speech is worth reading and I heard from people who were at the event that the President was amazing in person.
It is the grimmest of ironies that one of the most savage, barbaric acts of evil in history began in one of the most modernized societies of its time, where so many markers of human progress became tools of human depravity: science that can heal used to kill; education that can enlighten used to rationalize away basic moral impulses; the bureaucracy that sustains modern life used as the machinery of mass death—a ruthless, chillingly efficient system where many were responsible for the killing, but few got actual blood on their hands.
[...] That is the question of the righteous—those who would do extraordinary good at extraordinary risk not for affirmation or acclaim or to advance their own interests, but because it is what must be done. They remind us that no one is born a savior or a murderer—these are choices we each have the power to make. They teach us that no one can make us into bystanders without our consent, and that we are never truly alone—that if we have the courage to heed that “still, small voice” within us, we can form a minyan for righteousness that can span a village, even a nation.
Their legacy is our inheritance. And the question is, how do we honor and preserve it? How do we ensure that “never again” isn’t an empty slogan, or merely an aspiration, but also a call to action?
I believe we start by doing what we are doing today—by bearing witness, by fighting the silence that is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.
[...] But we must also remember that bearing witness is not the end of our obligation—it’s just the beginning. We know that evil has yet to run its course on Earth. We’ve seen it in this century in the mass graves and the ashes of villages burned to the ground, and children used as soldiers and rape used as a weapon of war. To this day, there are those who insist the Holocaust never happened; who perpetrate every form of intolerance—racism and anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, and more—hatred that degrades its victim and diminishes us all.
Today, and every day, we have an opportunity, as well as an obligation, to confront these scourges—to fight the impulse to turn the channel when we see images that disturb us, or wrap ourselves in the false comfort that others’ sufferings are not our own. Instead we have the opportunity to make a habit of empathy; to recognize ourselves in each other; to commit ourselves to resisting injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take—whether confronting those who tell lies about history, or doing everything we can to prevent and end atrocities like those that took place in Rwanda, those taking place in Darfur. That is my commitment as President. I hope that is yours, as well.
It will not be easy. At times, fulfilling these obligations require self-reflection. But in the final analysis, I believe history gives us cause for hope rather than despair—the hope of a chosen people who have overcome oppression since the days of Exodus; of the nation of Israel rising from the destruction of the Holocaust; of the strong and enduring bonds between our nations.
It is the hope, too, of those who not only survived, but chose to live, teaching us the meaning of courage and resilience and dignity. I’m thinking today of a study conducted after the war that found that Holocaust survivors living in America actually had a higher birthrate than American Jews. What a stunning act of faith—to bring a child in a world that has shown you so much cruelty; to believe that no matter what you have endured, or how much you have lost, in the end, you have a duty to life.
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