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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

VA’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Washington, DC
January 18, 2023

Good afternoon. Thank you, Ronald, for the many roles you play here at VA, especially as our agency’s representative to the Federal Holocaust Remembrance Program. Let me also thank the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo and its Executive Director, Lauren Bloomberg, who helped organize this event.

We gather today to remember and honor the lives of six million Jews, as well as the Roma, Slavs, disabled persons, LGBTQ+ individuals, and many others who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. We also mark the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest extermination and concentration camp where over a million people died and suffered unspeakable horrors.

Today, I find myself reflecting on the meaning of liberation. I’m struck thinking about the liberated, as well as the liberators; not just the troops who tore down the camps’ gates, but also those who followed afterward to provide medical care, food, and clothing. I think of the chaplains praying with survivors, performing religious services and burial ceremonies. They, too, were liberators.

This is particularly true of the Jewish American liberators. For them, the fight against Hitler’s Germany was a personal one. Many of these Jewish service members had recently immigrated to the United States from an increasingly dangerous interwar Europe, leaving behind families and loved ones. The dog tags dangling around their necks were imprinted with a small “H,” an abbreviation for “Hebrew,” their Jewish identity a source of both pride and peril on the battlefield. Many recount stories of walking through recently liberated concentration camps speaking Yiddish or repeating the German words “ich bin ein Jude,” “I am a Jew,” giving immediate comfort and kinship to Jewish survivors. 

Their example stands as a symbol of humanity at its most resilient, when one person supports another in the darkest of circumstances. They are a tribute to the best of America's dreams: compassion, bravery, freedom, and—above all—hope.

Liberation, of course, does not happen instantaneously. Liberators and survivors alike lived the rest of their lives haunted, in their waking hours and in restless sleep, by what they had seen. Their wounds are ones that are still felt to this day as we forever mourn lives cut short and communities torn apart. Meanwhile, many American service members fought to rescue and restore freedom to those persecuted and oppressed by the Nazi regime, only to return home to a country where they experienced racial and religious persecution.

Today, and all days, we remember.

Remembrance, however, is not a passive thing. We must actively tell the stories of the Holocaust, constantly reminding ourselves of the cruelty—both the casual indifference and the virulent hatred—which allowed humans to inflict such suffering on other humans.

Remembrance was on the mind of then-General Dwight Eisenhower, when he visited the Ohrdruf concentration camp one week after its liberation. He said, “The things I saw beggar description. ... The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were ... overpowering ... . I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”

We witness the truth of his prophetic warning today, as pervasive misinformation and racism have led to an increase in Holocaust denialism and insidious acts of antisemitism. This problem is exacerbated in the social media era, where messages of hate can be spread instantaneously to an audience of millions. A renewed rise in antisemitism has directly resulted in violence against other vulnerable populations, including extremism and mass killings nationally and around the world.

Let me be clear: discrimination, prejudice, and hatred in any form have no home at VA and no place in our great nation. Here at VA, we’re focused on eliminating antisemitism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and inequity through our Department’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (I-DEA) sub-council. We are committed to advancing an inclusive environment that values and supports the diverse communities we serve—employees, Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors—and cultivates equitable access to care, benefits, and services for all.

We must combat hatred and prejudice wherever it exists. We must reject those who distort history and peddle racist conspiracy theories. We must teach current and future generations how something as unfathomable as the Holocaust could have occurred, so that they can stand up to injustice and counter the scourge of antisemitism once and for all.

In closing, let me recognize and honor today’s guest speaker. Bill Lin, thank you for sharing your mother’s stories and the stories of her fellow survivors. As the years pass, fewer and fewer survivors remain with us. We all have a responsibility to honor their legacy by remembering them and by ensuring the everlasting imperative of “Never Again.”

Never, ever, again.

Thank you.