Remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Margit [Meissner]. It’s an honor to join with you, and the other survivors gathered here, during these Days of Remembrance. I want to thank the Holocaust Museum’s board members, supporters, staff and volunteers for inviting and welcoming me this evening. During this time of remembrance, as we reflect on the atrocities of the Holocaust, we also grieve with the people of Poland. And we mourn the loss of several members of the museum’s extended family who, along with President Lech Kaczynski , were killed in last week’s tragic plane crash.
In times of loss, and of unprecedented challenge, the importance of the Holocaust Museum’s mission and work is brought into stark focus. Tonight, it’s my privilege to salute this work, and to join you in recognizing Fred Zeidman’s outstanding leadership. His contributions reflect the commitment that so many in this room have shown in helping to create, to sustain and to strengthen the museum.
Together, you’ve provided a place of learning, of contemplation, and of healing, for more than 30 million visitors. You’ve made sure the stories from the Holocaust are not just relevant for these visitors, but also essential teaching tools for educators, policymakers, judges, military officers and law enforcement officials. And you’ve enabled the lessons of a painful past to serve as guideposts in today’s struggle to promote tolerance, peace, justice and the rule of law.
In the work of seeking and administering justice, I am grateful to count you as partners. And I am proud to join you in commemorating this historic anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps across Europe. More than one hundred of the servicemen who helped to liberate those camps – and to bring a long, unspeakable nightmare to an end – are here with us tonight. Sixty-five years ago, these veterans were among the first Americans to witness the suffering and cruelty of the Holocaust. They were, sadly, the first Americans to give voice to our nation’s enduring vow to combat the causes and consequences of hatred. And they became the first of many Americans to speak the words, and to make the pledge: "Never again."
Today, our challenge is to fulfill this promise – work that compels us, not only to bear witness to the past, but also to understand and to heed the lessons of the Shoah.
We may never fully understand how the Holocaust could have happened; how people living in one of the world’s most civilized and modern societies engaged in these astonishing acts of barbarism. And we may never fully comprehend how, for years, our own country turned a blind eye to intolerance and injustice and human need. But I believe that we can only begin building the future we want for our country, our world, ourselves, and our children, if we have the courage to look back on the past and attempt to understand it.
In law school, I had the benefit – and great privilege – of studying these lessons under Telford Taylor. Before he joined Columbia University’s faculty, Professor Taylor served as our nation’s lead prosecutor during the Nuremberg Trials – the effort to restore the rule of law in Germany and to invalidate racist Nazi policies. On a recent tour of the museum, Sara Bloomfield guided me through an exhibit on these trials. And I had the chance to watch footage of my former professor as a young man as he delivered his opening court statement in December of 1946. After Brigadier General Taylor outlined the grievous sins and horrifying crimes of the Holocaust, he quoted Justice Jackson in his argument that "civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated."
Today, we still cannot – and must not – ignore this past. In learning about and reflecting on it, I’m continually struck by how complicit, or simply indifferent, Germany’s judiciary and law enforcement officials had been in the establishment of the Third Reich and the enactment of laws that made the Holocaust possible. Their moral and professional failures provide the best proof that it is not the rule of law alone – but a legal framework that reflects our common humanity – that is necessary to prevent future atrocities.
What’s so tragic in this history is the fact that Germany’s judges and law enforcement officials were among those most equipped to effectively challenge Hitler’s authority and the Nazi regime’s legitimacy. But, of course, we know that the overwhelming majority did not.
As we look back on this past, as we shake our heads in amazement and disgust, it’s important to remember that, at the time of the Holocaust and even beyond it, America’s legal framework reflected its own philosophy of intolerance and bias. Perhaps no one here understands this better than Leon Bass, one of the liberators who honors us with his presence tonight. In 1945, he risked his life overseas to battle the forces of oppression. Yet, in his own country, he was treated as a second-class citizen. After helping to liberate Buchenwald concentration camp, Sergeant Bass returned home to face the realities and restrictions of life under Jim Crow.
In the decades since then, our country has seen great progress. Yet, despite the advancements we’ve made in creating a more equal nation, we have much more to do. It may be tempting – when you look at the diversity of people walking the halls of Congress or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equal justice has been achieved for all Americans and that we’ve moved beyond our history of prejudice. Yes, we have made tremendous progress as a nation. But it will take more than the election of the first African-American President to fully secure the promises of equality and justice and to conform our present reality to our founding principles. And it will certainly take more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General to ensure that the American justice system reflects our highest principles and our fundamental humanity.
But you already know this. You understand – all too well – that intolerance, and the violence it inspires, continues to persist. Less than six months after millions of Americans gathered on our national mall to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama, a lone gunman – fueled by hate –approached the doors of the Holocaust Museum and murdered Officer Stephen Johns.
As it were, I was on my way to the museum that night, to see a play about an imagined meeting of Anne Frank and Emmett Till – two people who’d also been the victims of hate.
Officer Johns’ killer was an 88-year-old white supremacist and outspoken anti-Semite. In one of our nation’s most sacred places of solace and healing, he taught us all that, unfortunately, the world has yet to run its course of bigotry and cruelty. He also reminded us that our continued vigilance against hatred is essential.
Today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s latest count, there are 932 known hate groups operating across our country. In the last decade, the number of hate groups has increased by more than 50 percent.
Our nation’s Holocaust Museum, and it is truly a national treasure – and those who strengthen and support its work – advances this cause. In particular, I want to thank you for the leadership training you provide to those who serve the Department of Justice and uphold the values that define this country. Over the last 10 years, the museum has trained tens of thousands of police officers, every new FBI agent, and thousands of leaders in the judiciary and the military. In the course of the last decade, 60,000 professionals in the justice system have been educated by the museum.
Fortunately, our law enforcement and legal systems are succeeding in battling and dismantling violent hate groups. Last fall, Congress passed the historic "Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act" – a signature accomplishment for this administration and this Department of Justice. This statute strengthens our ability to prosecute hate crimes, and we are committed to enforcing it and defending it. Yet, despite such good work, we know that threats persist. But I refuse to believe that these threats are as strong as the forces working for tolerance and peace. I refuse to accept that the commitment of those who heed the battle cry of hate is as strong as those who answer the clarion call of justice.
This work benefits the entire Justice Department. And it will help the Department fulfill an historic commitment to strengthen the human rights advocacy work that is such a prominent part of the museum’s goals and mission. I’m proud to tell you about one of the key ways we’re building on this work. On the first full day of Passover this year, the Department launched an unprecedented expansion of its resources and capabilities for pursuing justice in cases of human rights violations.
Within the Department’s Criminal Division, we have formally created a new Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, which will serve as the centerpiece of our human rights enforcement efforts. This new section includes our Office of Special Investigations – which has been pursuing justice on behalf of Holocaust victims for nearly three decades. Under the leadership of Eli Rosenbaum – who joins us tonight – OSI has achieved remarkable success. In fact, this office has won more court cases against Nazi criminals than the governments of all other countries of the world, combined. OSI now joins with our Domestic Security Section, which has built an impressive record of achievement in prosecuting crimes of torture, genocide, and transnational violent crime.
This dynamic new law enforcement unit will be led by the head of our Criminal Division, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer – a leader many of you have also had the privilege to work alongside. Lanny brings a unique perspective, and deep commitment, to this work. As many of you know, Lanny is the son of Holocaust survivors. And tragically two of his grandparents are among the Third Reich’s six million Jewish victims.
On behalf of Lanny, who is also here this evening, let me pledge to the survivors, to their family members, and to the liberators gathered with us: so long as there are Nazi war criminals living freely among us, we will persevere in holding these criminals accountable and bringing them to justice. And to our fellow Americans who have fled persecution in more recent conflicts, and who have now made new homes within this country, we will pledge to pursue the perpetrators of those crimes, as well. This Department of Justice will ensure that would-be human rights violators know that such crimes cannot – and will not – go unpunished. We will bear any burden and go to any length to insure that those who have committed these unspeakable crimes are brought to justice. This is my promise.
It is through this commitment that we will apply the lessons of the Holocaust and honor the memory of those lost to it. So long as I have the honor to lead the Department of Justice, we will continue to do our part to fulfill the truth of and keep the promise of: "Never again."