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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

US Holocaust Memorial Council Swearing-In
Washington, DC
May 5, 2016

Sara, thank you for inviting me this evening, and, Allan, for your warm introduction.

Tom, new appointees, family and friends, distinguished guests:

I’m deeply honored to join all of you in such a dignified, sacred space for such an important ceremony.

Seventy-one years ago yesterday, the 71st Infantry Division liberated Gunskirchen, a sub-camp of Mauthausen. One of those GIs—then-Private and, later, Sergeant Delbert Cooper—wrote to his wife, narrating his experience liberating those prisoners from the horrors they were enduring.

He wrote, “I never want to see a sight again as we saw when we pulled in there. . . . It was terrible. Most of them were Jews that Hitler had put away for safekeeping. Some of them had been in camps for as long as 8 years. So help me, I cannot see how they stood it. . . . The people for the most part were dirty walking skeletons. Some were too weak to walk. . . . Some of them were still lying around dead where they had fallen. . . .

“While we were standing outside the truck, any number of them came up & touched us, as if they couldn’t believe we were actually there. Some of them would try to kiss us even. . . . Some of them would come up, grab you around the neck, & cry on your shoulder. Others would just look & cry. Some of them would throw their arms up in the air & pray. . . .

“[P]eople were dying at the average rate of 150 per day at this camp. They just stack them up in a pile if they died in the barracks. If they died outside they left them there. I know, I saw them.

“There are two things about all this that I want to tell you,” he wrote. “1. I never want to see anything like that happen to anyone. 2. I wish 130 million American people could have been standing in my shoes.”

Cooper closed his letter, “Show this to Mom, and anyone else you care to. It’s all the truth as I saw it with my own eyes.”

Private Cooper and that generation of eye-witnesses to the darkest depths of humanity are leaving this earth in larger numbers every day, and with them Holocaust survivors.

None but those who were there can begin to comprehend.

But thanks to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, millions of Americans and people from around the world have figuratively stood in Private Cooper’s shoes—in the shoes of survivors, in the boots of liberators. They’ve had opportunity to see and hear the truth—with their own eyes, and with their own ears.

So the Council’s responsibility commemorating the Holocaust is immense, complex, and vitally important. Yours is the hallowed task of preserving and animating the memory of those who suffered so terribly and were lost—so they will not be lost to the ages. Equally as important, yours is the task to celebrate examples of the good, indomitable heights of the human spirit. In short, yours is the task to keep the darkest depths of depravity squarely in the brightest light.

So, in serving the Council, serving the Museum, you serve all of humanity.

Thank you for inviting me to share in this important ceremony.