Yale President Levin Keynotes Holocaust Commemoration At U.S. Capitol

Yale University President Richard C. Levin delivered the keynote speech today in a noon ceremony held at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Rotunda program included a candlelighting ceremony in which members of Congress participated alongside Holocaust survivors. Other speakers were Miles Lerman, chair of the Holocaust Memorial Council; Ruth B. Mandel, vice chair of the council; Eliahu Ben Elissar, Israeli Ambassador; and Dan Napolitano, teacher at Georgetown Preparatory School. The program was coordinated by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The text of Levin’s speech follows:

“Blessed is the Match …”

The main camp at Auschwitz was situated, not in remote isolation, but in a densely populated region. To the east, immediately adjacent to the camp, was a pleasant village, complete with a hotel and shops, built to house SS troops and their families. One mile farther east was the town of Auschwitz, intended by the very men who ordered the construction of the camps to be a center of industrial activity, a focus of German resettlement at the confluence of three rivers, with easy access to the coal fields of Upper Silesia. (1)

In his chilling work on the origins of Auschwitz, Robert-Jan van Pelt documents the Utopian vision that drove the systematic planning for German colonization of the East. In December 1941, Hans Stosberg, the architect and master planner, sent his friends a New Year’s greeting card. On the front he wished them “health, happiness, and a good outcome for every new beginning.” The card’s central spread depicted his drawings for a reconstruction of the central market place in Auschwitz. The inscription on the back of the greeting card connected Stosberg’s current project with National Socialist mythology:

In the year 1241 Silesian knights, acting as saviors of the Reich, warded off the Mongolian assault at Wahlstatt. In that same century Auschwitz was founded as a German town. After six hundred years [sic] the Fhrer Adolf Hitler is turning the Bolshevik menace away from Europe. This year, 1941, the construction of a new German city and the reconstruction of the old Silesian market have been planned and initiated.

To Stosberg’s inscription, I would add that during the same year, 1941, it was decided to reduce the space allocated to each prisoner at the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau camp from 14 to 11 square feet.

How, in one of the most civilized nations on earth, could an architect boast about work that involved not only designing the handsome town center depicted on his greeting card but the meticulous planning of facilities to house the slave labor to build it?

This is but one of numberless questions that knowledge of the Holocaust compels us to ask. In the details of its horror, the Holocaust forces us to redefine the range of human experience; it demands that we confront real, not imagined, experiences that defy imagination.

How can we begin to understand the dehumanizing loss of identity suffered by the victims in the camps? How can we begin to understand the insensate rationality and brutality of the persecutors? How can we begin to understand the silence of the bystanders? There is only one answer: by remembering.

The distinguished Yale scholar, Geoffrey Hartman, tells us, “the culture of remembrance is at high tide. … At present, three generations are preoccupied with Holocaust memory. There are the eyewitnesses; their children, the second generation, who have subdued some of their ambivalence and are eager to know their parents better; and the third generation, grand-children who treasure the personal stories of relatives now slipping away.” (2)

The tide will inevitably recede. And if there are no survivors to tell the story, who will make their successors remember and help them to understand?

Our educational institutions must shoulder this burden, and their efforts are already under way. The exhibitions and publications of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, along with those of sister museums in other cities, are educating the public about the horrors of the Shoah. Museums, university archives, and private foundations are collecting and preserving the materials that enable us to learn from the past, and it is the special role of universities to support the scholars who explore and illuminate this dark episode in human history. Our universities have a dual responsibility: to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to seek a deeper understanding of it.

This is a daunting and important responsibility. To confront future generations with the memory of the Holocaust is to change forever their conception of humanity. To urge them to understand it is to ask their commitment to prevent its recurrence.

In the words of Hannah Senesh, the 23 year-old poet and patriot executed as a prisoner of the Reich in Budapest, “Blessed is the match that is consumed in kindling a flame.” May the act of remembrance consume our ignorance and indifference, and light the way to justice and righteousness.

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Media Contact

Gila Reinstein: gila.reinstein@yale.edu, 203-432-1325