Members of Congress, Ambassador Dermer, Chairman Bernstein, Vice Chairman Bolten, Director Bloomfield, survivors of the Holocaust, World War II veterans, and other distinguished guests.
It is a great honor to be here, and I want to thank you for asking me to participate in this Day of Remembrance. It is fitting that this occasion takes place in Emancipation Hall at the U.S. Capitol, the ultimate beacon of liberty and quintessential symbol of the right of free people to choose their own destiny.
We meet today to bear witness to a horror and brutality unlike any other, to mourn millions of men, women, and children who perished, to pay tribute to those who against all odds managed to survive, and to herald acts of bravery that brought unmatched atrocities to an end.
As we take on this heavy task, we are reminded of the vital work that the Holocaust Museum does each and every day to shed light on this dark chapter in human history and to equip us to write the next chapter--one that is more free, more equal, and more humane.
Each year, we embark on these Days of Remembrance. And by doing this, we take up the mantle of "never forget" and "never again" that has been passed down from one generation to the next. As we gather to remember, we must also try to put ourselves in the position of our predecessors and ask what would we have done to make a difference.
In this remembrance, it is not enough to focus on the evil that took root and grew. It is not enough to talk about the tyranny of ignorance, hatred, and bigotry. And it is not enough to warn about the insidiousness of standing in silence.
When we remember the Holocaust, we must also remember those who acted to make a difference. This year's theme is "Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses," and I would like to talk about not only what the Treasury Department did more than a half century ago but also describe the ripple effect of moral courage, how one person's decision to reject indifference can save lives and pave the way so someone else can do more.
A man who made one of those fateful decisions was Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Even before the United States entered World War II, Morgenthau began using his position at Treasury to help prepare America for war and arm the Allies who were already engaged in it. Morgenthau did this initially by convincing President Roosevelt to give the Treasury Department new purchasing power, which made it possible for the United Kingdom and France to acquire U.S.-made aircraft -- in the face of opposition from both the War Department and isolationists in Congress.
The truth is, too many in the United States government looked the other way for far too long, and its response to the Holocaust was constrained for some time. This bleak record was widespread, reaching every corner of government.
Particularly troubling was a period when the State Department was denying visas to Jewish refugees and delaying licenses that would have provided support for relief organizations across Europe. At the same time, officials were suppressing information about the Holocaust.
Word of Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe--the "Final Solution"--reached the State Department on August 11, 1942. It came in a message from Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress Representative in Bern, Switzerland. The department verified the news, but then did little to act on it.
After too long a delay, things changed when Josiah DuBois, an assistant general counsel at Treasury, and John Pehle, Treasury's chief of foreign funds control came to understand the evil that was being ignored. They delivered an unsettling memo to Secretary Morgenthau on January 13, 1944, bearing the title "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews."
From there, Morgenthau wasted little time and took the matter directly to President Roosevelt and within days the President issued Executive Order 9417, which established the War Refugee Board. The Board was set up inside the Treasury Department, and according to its charter, it was to "speed the rescue and relief of victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death."
The War Refugee Board had to secure private funds for the vast majority of its activities, but was given independent authority and it could do things other departments and agencies of the United States could not. For instance, it could send representatives into foreign territory to mount an effort to save lives.
John Pehle was named Executive Director. And from an office on the fourth floor of the Treasury Department, he began his work.
Pehle accomplished much in a brief period. He forged ties with organizations already on the ground, like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He persuaded the Swiss to protect a group of Jews trapped in Europe while waiting to enter the United States. He helped establish a haven for 1,000 Jews at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. And under his leadership, the War Refugee Board issued visas to Jews across Europe, arranging transport for thousands so they could find safety from near-certain death. At one point, he helped buy boats to take thousands of refugees out of Romania.
One of the War Refugee Board's priorities was the rescue of Hungarian Jews who were being deported to death camps. The Board sent Treasury employees to neutral countries to enlist help. One of them, Iver Olsen, an accountant at Treasury, went to Sweden and recruited a young Swedish diplomat named Raoul Wallenberg.
Soon, Wallenberg was in Hungary, but by then, time was scarce. Hungarian authorities had already deported some 425,000 Jews to Auschwitz. In a story that is now famous, Wallenberg proceeded heroically and with urgency, issuing fake Swedish passports to protect as many people as he could. When he was told of a Hungarian plan to round up several thousand Jewish women, he moved swiftly to engineer their rescue. His staff stayed up all night and made nearly 2,000 passports before 6 a.m. By dawn, all were completed and personally delivered in time to save these women.
Wallenberg also managed to purchase about 30 buildings in Hungary to use as hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, and safe houses for more than 8,000 children whose parents had already been sent away or killed.
Yet, the window to rescue the Hungarian Jews ultimately closed as the Germans rushed the deportations to Auschwitz, where more than 430,000 were ultimately sent.
Still, Wallenberg, working with others, was responsible for rescuing as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews. And 70 years later, we recognize him for skill and bravery under the most extreme circumstances.
For its part, the War Refugee Board helped save some 200,000 Jews.
Reflecting on their efforts, Pehle said: "What we did was little enough. It was late. Late and little."
But we know that if Morgenthau had not taken steps to arm the Allies and if the War Refugee Board had failed to act, the outcome would have been far worse and more lives would have been lost.
Individuals like Olsen, Pehle, DuBois and Morgenthau changed history because they did not succumb to apathy. They saw the need for action, and did something. And they recognized that it was not only in their power to do something, it was their obligation. As the proverb says, "A man is judged by his deeds, not his words."
That legacy of deeds has lived on at Treasury.
We saw that in the 1990s when Stuart Eizenstat, a Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, sought to provide justice for victims of the Holocaust. Stu secured landmark agreements with governments across Europe to provide restitution for forced labor, lost bank accounts, looted art, and unpaid insurance policies.
And today, the legacy continues with the department's work to prevent violence, combat atrocities, and halt human rights abuses. The point is, military action is not the only tool we have to change unacceptable behavior. We know that diplomacy and economic sanctions can induce change. In fact, under the leadership of Under Secretary David Cohen and his predecessor Stuart Levey, Treasury has put in place the most effective economic sanctions regime in history. This has isolated Iran, crippled its economy, helped to expose and hinder Iran's ability to support terror, held those responsible for human rights abuses to account, and halted the progress on its nuclear program for the first time in a decade.
At the same time, we have blocked the flow of money to terrorist groups and organizations around the world that are bent on murder and fueled by prejudice and hatred. We have also targeted individuals and entities in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan for escalating violence ethnic killing, and mass displacement of families. It is worth noting that the Sudanese government agreed to allow a joint United Nations-African Union peace-keeping force to enter Darfur shortly after a round of intense financial pressure was imposed in 2007, which contributed to a decline in violence within the region at the time. In a similar move, the President just recently took steps to hold individuals and groups accountable for human rights abuses and atrocities in South Sudan.
The truth is, in our world today, dark forces still exist, scapegoating is still used as a rationale for brutality and bigotry, and propaganda is still deployed to foment fear. But in the face of such injustice, we have a choice. We can commit ourselves to remaining vigilant. We do not have to remain on the sidelines. That means countering hatred and violence wherever it appears. And it means opposing anti-Semitism in all its dimensions, from leaflets in Ukraine to a gunman's rampage outside a Jewish center in Kansas.
As Israeli President Shimon Peres has said, "Slings, arrows and gas chambers can annihilate man, but [they] cannot destroy human values, dignity and freedom."
So during these Days of Remembrance, let us renew our dedication to preserving the lessons of history. Let us choose to remain faithful to our principles, to take a stand rather than look the other way, and to inspire others to act. Because we know that our actions will have that ripple effect. And the commandment to make this world a better place will endure. May the memories of those who were murdered be bound up in our own lives and, may their memories be blessed.