Obliterating Bitburg


President Obama may have – unwittingly – helped wipe out memories of President Reagan’s shameful address at the cemetery in Bitburg.


Reagan sought to help Germans accommodate their past with a 1985 speech marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II – and he refused to back down when he found out that the cemetery was not simply a burial ground for German soldiers in the Wehrmacht, but for SS troops as well.

Those were the men dedicated to satisfying Hitler’s appetite for the blood of innocents. Bill Safire counts Elie Wiesel’s plea to Reagan not to go as among the best speeches he’s heard, and includes it here, with his own wonderfully succinct summary of the events, better justice than I can do it.

24 years later, President Obama delivered his own Holocaust remembrance here; Notably – for a president often derided as an appeaser – his speech spares little thought for perpetrator or for bystander, and he reserves his love for the victims and their saviors:

But while we are here today to bear witness to the human capacity to destroy, we are also here to pay tribute to the human impulse to save.  In the moral accounting of the Holocaust, as we reckon with numbers like 6 million, as we recall the horror of numbers etched into arms, we also factor in numbers like these: 7,200 — the number of Danish Jews ferried to safety, many of whom later returned home to find the neighbors who rescued them had also faithfully tended their homes and businesses and belongings while they were gone.

We remember the number five — the five righteous men and women who join us today from Poland.  We are awed by your acts of courage and conscience.  And your presence today compels each of us to ask ourselves whether we would have done what you did.  We can only hope that the answer is yes.

Nice. But there was something even better.

First, a fascinating anomaly. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg wrote a special version of El Malei Rachamim (God, Filled with Mercy) for U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum events (he is its former chairman.) Here’s the critical "extra" verse, in English:

To the souls of our brothers and sisters

The six million martyrs of the house of Israel in Europe –

Who were killed, slaughtered, gassed, burned, buried alive

By their murderers, the Nazis and their collaborators

In Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, mauthausen, Bergen Belsen,

Soibibor, and the many other killing places.

That’s not quite how it reads in the Hebrew, and why is interesting:

Who were killed, who were slaughtered, who were burned and who expired sanctifying God’s name, at the hands of German murderers and their collaborators of other nations.

For readers of Hebrew, it’s a Yom HaShoah version of reading the English against the Hebrew in the Reform siddur on Yom Kippur: Lots of punishment on the left page, lots of, umm, "I’ll try harder" on the right.

Israelis have little patience for the dodge they see embedded in the word "Nazi:" As if German citizens not only didn’t take part, but hardly noticed the genocide committed in their name. This persists although Israel is long past the fury that the reparations agreement evoked in the 1950s. Collectives must take responsibility for the evil committed in their name.

American relations with Germany, on the other hand, are fraught and sensitive (the occupation, the belief among Germans that Americans expected and continue to expect deference.) "German murderers" wouldn’t exactly play in a Capitol Rotunda ceremony.

That’s just what happened Thursday – canto Alberto Mizrahi of Anshe Emet sybagogue in Chicago (White House choef of staff Rahm Emanuel’s shul.) But that’s not what’s extraordinary – the modified hymn is, as I’ve noted, standard fare at such USHMM events.

What stood out was when Cantor Mizrahi, having mentioned the "murdereds and their collaborators of other nations" shouted – as in stopped singing, and shouted – "Yamah Shemam!"

This is the most serious of curses. Its full meaning is  "May their memories forever be obliterated from the Book of Life."

As in, never remembered, never honored.

I don’t know if  this is the first time someone has  cried out "Yamah Shmam!" in the Captol Rotunda.

But coupled with Obama’s uncompromising speech – and with Elie Wiesel looking on – it felt just right.

Wiesel thanked Obama for keeping U.S. diplomats away from the Durban anti-racism conference, and missing the spectacle of a Holocaust denier decrying Israel’s "racism."

Israeli ambassador Sallai Meridor, who has taken to speaking more bluntly now that he’s leaving his post, anticipated Obama’s theme about not standing by – and wasn’t too equivocal in describing the greatest danger Jews now face:

Honoring the dead should not be the sole purpose of remembrance. It must serve us to shape a better future. It must make us think not only what  would we have done, but what will we do in similar situations.  How will we  act when we see racism against others?  When genocide occurs far from  our borders,  how will we try to stop it?  When a regime is again  endangering world peace, terrorizing its neighbors and threatening to  destroy the Jewish people,  how will we meet this challenge before it is too late?

His full speech is after the jump. In it, he pays tribute to Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress, who died just over a year ago.


Mr. President, Madam Speaker, Senators, members of Congress,  distinguished guests, and dear, dear Survivors,
Three weeks ago “Yurek”, the "cigarette boy" from Warsaw, passed away.

He was “my witness” when I went to Poland. In Warsaw he showed me the place from which the Jews were transported to the gas chambers and the sewer systems in which he survived when his entire family was murdered.  At the sites where Jews fought to die with dignity, he did not even mention his own role in the uprising or that only three years after he survived, he fought again, this time to save the survival of Israel.

One evening he told me quietly that his son, Eitan, fell in the defense of Israel in 1973.

Between Auschwitz, Majdank and Treblinka, he shared with me his dream for peace. 

Many of us in Israel are personally connected to the Holocaust. My mother’s grandparents were murdered by the Germans. Their son was beaten to death in front of his young daughters, who tried not to look but could not escape the noise of his cracking bones.

However, for Israel the Holocaust is more than a collection of heartbreaking personal experiences. The Holocaust is at the heart of our national identity. 

"Never Again" is at the center of our raison d’etre.  And like Yurek and Tom Lantos, we refuse to lose faith in the human spirit, to give up hope, or to forsake our passion for peace.  

As I was told only this week by an Israeli survivor, an eye doctor: My "revenge" he said are the families of my children, curing Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and volunteering in Africa , saving the sight of thousands of people.

When Yurek and Tom Lantos and other survivors cannot any more tell the story, the work of Holocaust museums will become even more vital.  At these institutions young people worldwide will be able to learn how "the writing was on the wall" years before the destruction started. There they will feel the human cost of indifference. In the US Holocaust Museum they will read on the wall the authentic document explaining why Auschwitz was not bombed; because it would divert necessary assets, because of doubtful efficacy, and because it might provoke even more vindictive actions by the Germans.  
At the same time, they will also learn the stories of the righteous amongst nations, who in their great courage saved human lives and the dignity of humanity. They will see how America and its allies defeated evil and that from destruction hope may rise again.
Honoring the dead should not be the sole purpose of remembrance. It must serve us to shape a better future. It must make us think not only what would we have done, but what will we do in similar situations.  How will we act when we see racism against others?  When genocide occurs far from our borders,  how will we try to stop it?  When a regime is again endangering world peace, terrorizing its neighbors and threatening to destroy the Jewish people,  how will we meet this challenge before it is too late?
We are honored today by the presence of the righteous amongst the nations and salute the brave Americans who saved the world only 65 years ago.

Their spirit is the spirit of America which continues to serve so many around the world as a source of hope and as a living example that all are created equal with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In the name of the Jewish state, I express our deepest gratitude to America for its unwavering friendship towards Israel and for standing on behalf of dignity, freedom, security and peace for all humanity.

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