With the plight of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians fixed firmly in mind, Holocaust survivors, Jewish leaders and elected officials in Washington this week marked the last Holocaust Remembrance Day of the 20th century.
At a memorial ceremony inside the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and at a lecture by the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel at the White House, the message was clear: Serbian atrocities must not go unanswered — morality and the memory of the Holocaust demand no less.
Wiesel praised the United States for taking the kind of action in Kosovo that it failed to take to help Holocaust survivors during World War II.
“This time the world was not silent. This time we did respond. This time we intervened,” Wiesel said Monday night, speaking in the East Room as part of a lecture series hosted by President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, marking the approach of the millennium.
Clinton said the vigilance Holocaust survivors have shown has played an important role in helping the world to avoid past mistakes.
“We must always remain awake to the warning signs of evil,” Clinton said. “And now, we know that it is possible to act before it is too late.
“The efforts of Holocaust survivors to make us remember and help us understand, therefore, have not been in vain.”
Clinton noted that it was the American Jewish community that emerged as the “most ardent community, earliest, for the United States stepping forward in Kosovo.”
Under the dome of the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, hundreds gathered for an annual memorial ceremony that took on a special resonance this year, not only in light of the violence in Kosovo, but because it coincided with the 60th anniversary of the voyage of the St. Louis.
A handful of passengers on the ship who were among the 900 Jewish refugees turned away from American shores and sent back to Europe were on hand at the Capitol Hill ceremony, serving as a living testament to the dangers of apathy and indifference.
One of the youngest passengers on that ship, Ruth Mandel, recalled her family’s experience, which for years she had been reluctant to speak about.
“Honestly I don’t know for sure what we learned from the past,” said Mandel, vice chairwoman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
“I have my doubts that recalling evil can make us good. But at least we have to try. As an act of faith, we have to try. As an act of memory, we have to try.”
Some survivors of the St. Louis, who were accompanied by members of Congress as they lit candles at the rotunda ceremony, said afterward that they remain hopeful that the lessons of their experience had made a lasting difference.
“It’s no longer an indifferent world,” said Liesl Joseph Loeb, 70, who disembarked the St. Louis with her family to find safe haven in Britain and now lives in Philadelphia. “Hopefully something was learned from the Holocaust and from the St. Louis episode.”
At his White House talk on “The Perils of Indifference: Lessons Learned From a Violent Century,” Wiesel also evoked the story of the St. Louis, raising a series of pointed questions about why the Allies did not do more to stop the Holocaust.
“What happened? I don’t understand,” he said. “Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of the victims?”
Miles Lerman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said, “As we remember the victims of the St. Louis and all of the eventual victims of the Holocaust, we have a better understanding why we are in Kosovo and why the free world cannot afford to stand with their hands folded while murder and mass atrocities run rampant.”
“This is a lesson that the world has learned in the past and cannot afford to forget.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.