Addressing the guests of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 2015 National Tribute dinner, keynote speaker FBI Director James Comey called the Holocaust the most significant event in human history.
“It is of course significant because it was the most horrific display in the world of inhumanity,” Comey told the 1,000 donors, dignitaries and survivors gathered at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park in downtown D.C. on Wednesday evening.
“But I believe it was also the most horrific display in world history of our humanity, of our capacity for evil and for moral surrender.”
For this reason, he continued, all new FBI special agents and intelligence analysts are required to go to the museum, referring to the Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust developed in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League.
“Good people helped to murder millions. And that’s the most frightening lesson of all,” said Comey. “That is why I send our agents and our analysts to the museum. I want them to stare at us and realize our capacity for rationalization and moral surrender.”
Prior to Comey’s remarks The 2015 Elie Wiesel Award was presented to Benjamin Ferencz and Judge Thomas Buergenthal. Ferencz is the last surviving prosecutor of the war crimes trials at Nuremberg. Ferencz was 27 years old when he successfully convicted 22 <I>Einsatzgruppen</I> – a particularly ruthless faction of German SS – who were charged with the murders of one million people. After the war, Ferencz helped lay the groundwork for the International Criminal Court.
“Never again has been happening ever again. We need laws and courts and enforcement. And the enforcement arm is very weak, so the public is the court of last resort,” Frencz said in a pretaped message. “I turn the world now back to you and hope you’ll have a more peaceful world than I have seen. Good luck.”
Buergenthal, one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz, served for ten years as a judge to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, Netherlands. In his remarks, he drew parallels between himself and his friend, and the award’s namesake, Wiesel, and paid homage to the more than one million children murdered in the Holocaust.
“Think of the scientists, medical doctors, scholars, artists, musicians, poets, writers, astronomers, teachers and philosophers these children might have become had they been allowed to live,” he said. “We will never know how many future Nobel Prize winners were among the children who perished.”
Listening in appreciation were ADL National Director Abe Foxman, DNC Chair Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer and former Al-Quds University Professor Mohammed Dajani, who led Palestinian students on a visit to Auschwitz in 2014.
Seventy years after the liberation of the camps, the eyewitness generation is rapidly diminishing, creating a sense of urgency to preserve evidence and make it accessible to as broad an audience as possible. To that end, the USHMM has launched an ambitious $540 million comprehensive campaign to bolster the museum’s endowment, increase annual funds and finance a new Collections and Conservation Center.
Wednesday afternoon, a ceremonial groundbreaking was held at the site of The David and Fela Shapell Family Collections and Conservation Center in Bowie, Md.
“In the future – it could be a hundred years from now, two hundred years from now – we can claim that something happened. But unless we can prove it, did it really happen?” said Irv Shapell, son of the center’s namesake. Without evidence, he continued, the door to denial is left open.
Among the items to be preserved at the new center are Ferencz’s papers.
Said USHMM Director Sara Bloomfield, “Technology has created a lot of problems [with Holocaust denial]. We can put all of this evidence online and make the truth accessible,” adding that the endeavor will take millions of dollars but will ultimately be an effective tool for global Holocaust education.
In a taped video, Bloomfield summed up the urgency of preserving Holocaust artifacts.
“When the survivors and all the eyewitnesses are gone, this evidence, these collections, will be the sole authentic witness to the Holocaust. This is the most important building our Museum will ever build,” she said. “Our generation has one moment in time to safeguard truth.”
Days of Remembrance events continued Thursday morning with a ceremony in the Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.