The story goes that when the Americans marched in, they discovered the starving survivors and the piles of dead bodies. And General Eisenhower made a decision. He ordered Germans from the nearby town to tour the camp, so they could see what had been done in their name. And he ordered American troops to tour the camp, so they could see the evil they were fighting against. Then he invited congressmen and journalists to bear witness. And he ordered that photographs and films be made. Some of us have seen those same images, whether in the Holocaust Museum or when I visited Yad Vashem, and they never leave you. Eisenhower said that he wanted “to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.”
Eisenhower understood the danger of silence. He understood that if no one knew what had happened, that would be yet another atrocity — and it would be the perpetrators’ ultimate triumph.
What Eisenhower did to record these crimes for history is what we are doing here today. That’s what Elie Wiesel and the survivors we honor here do by fighting to make their memories part of our collective memory. That’s what the Holocaust Museum does every day on our National Mall, the place where we display for the world our triumphs and failures and the lessons we’ve learned from our history. It’s the very opposite of silence.
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.