WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama marked Holocaust Remembrance Day with calls to combat Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, as well as for vigilance against current and future atrocities.
"As societies, we must stand against ignorance and anti-Semitism, including those who try to deny the Holocaust," Obama said in a statement issued Thursday. "As nations, we must do everything we can to prevent and end atrocities in our time."
Obama, who is scheduled to tour the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on Monday together with survivors, also noted in his statement the 100th anniversary of the birth of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews and then disappeared under Soviet occupation.
Holocaust Remembrance Day was also marked for the first time at the Pentagon by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a ceremony attended by survivors and by Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, with whom Panetta had been meeting.
Panetta said Barak’s career as a decorated soldier and a leader was itself a rebuke to the Nazis.
Survivors helped "build a strong and vibrant Jewish state in Israel," Panetta said. "Ehud’s life has been a living tribute to the memory of the Holocaust."
Visits by Barak to Washington have increased in frequency in recent months as Israel and the United States consult on how best to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
The day also was commemorated by an event organized by the Holocaust Memorial at the Capitol, where Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, represented the Obama administration.
In a speech at that ceremony, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, likened Iran’s current leadership to the Nazis, echoing earlier remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"To achieve its abominable goals, Iran is developing military nuclear capabilities and the missiles to deliver them," Oren said.
Such comparisons earned a rare rebuke to Israeli leaders from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist.
"Iran is a danger, but to say it will create a second Auschwitz?" Wiesel told Globes, the Israeli business daily, when asked to comment particularly on Netanyahu’s comparisons. "I don’t compare anything to the Holocaust."
Congressional leaders from both parties issued statements marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committee, noted that time was running out for survivors seeking compensation from companies that profited from their families in that era.
"Insurance and rail companies have spent seven decades avoiding accountability for their Holocaust-era actions," she said, referring to legislation she has sponsored that would facilitate lawsuits against such companies. "Individuals who were children during the Holocaust are now in their eighties, and time is running out to ensure that they are granted justice.”
On Wednesday evening, the Holocaust Memorial honored Burmese democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi with its Wiesel Award.
Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff, presented the award to Suu, who could not attend and who sent a video message. Lew, who is Jewish, recalled growing up among survivors, and praised Suu as among those who do not turn away from difficulties in the advancement of human rights.
"She refused to give up," he said. "Instead, she continued to inspire the entire world with her faith in nonviolent action, and her belief that freedom would ultimately prove greater than tyranny."
Natalie Portman, the Israeli-born Oscar winning actress, read a passage from one of Suu’s speeches.