Remarks of Ambassador David Pressman at the March of the Living
April 16, 2023
Koltoi Anna Square
Chief Rabbi Vero, Coordinator Schnurbein, Ambassador Gross, Ambassador Hadas-Handelsman, President Heisler, Gábor Gordon, members of the diplomatic corps, and most importantly survivors, good afternoon.
That the largest synagogue in Europe is a short walk from where we stand today, and Europe’s fourth largest synagogue—which I recently visited—is in Szeged are a testament to the importance of the Jewish community to Hungary’s history, both past and present. I am honored to stand here today, with you, on this important occasion.
In 1945, as the Nazis prepared to evacuate the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp, and begin the death marches to Buchenwald, before departing the Nazis made their prisoners dig up bodies from the mass graves and burn them in a huge pyre, in order to destroy evidence of the killings that had taken place. When United States General George Patton arrived at the Camp a week later, he noted quote “They were not very successful in their operations, because there was a pile of human bones, skulls, charred torsos.” End quote. Visiting Ohrdruf with General Patton, General Eisenhower ordered all residents of the nearby German town of Gotha to be brought to the camp. The people of Gotha lived so close that they would have seen the smoke from the massive pyre, and perhaps even taken in its smell. They were made to confront the horrors that had been perpetrated so close to where they had lived.
When we come together to retell the story of the Holocaust, we rightly lionize the liberators, marvel at the perseverance and humanity of the survivors and the incalculable loss of the millions killed. But in our retelling, we also must tell the story of people like the residents of Gotha – bystanders who knew what was happening, but who failed to act. And we must also speak of people whose seemingly trivial, routine, daily acts, helped enable the Nazis to kill more than six million Jews, as well as countless homosexuals, Roma, and others.
The trains had conductors. They were maintained by engineers. Cleaned by workers. Passed through countless cities and towns along their journey. And yet, so many people watched passively as their Jewish neighbors were coerced onto those trains, just as they saw that those Jewish neighbors never returned.
We know that the Holocaust could not have been perpetrated without the vile hatred of the executioners who managed the gas chambers and guard towers. But so too could it not have been perpetrated without the complicit passivity of residents of towns like Gotha. People who convinced themselves that they did not know, or that they were powerless to do anything.
We gather today to remember those who perished. We gather today to reflect upon what could have been. Most important of all, we gather today so that we can learn. We will not forget those who perpetrated these terrible crimes; names infamous today such as Hitler and Mengele, the Nazis and the Arrow Cross; we will never forget the heroes: Carl Lutz, Raoul Wallenberg, and Hannah Szenes; and we will not forget what happens when we allow ourselves to become bystanders – like the residents of Gotha – deafened by silence, complicit by inaction.
So while part of this March is commemoration, remembering, and educating, part of this March is an act of rededication. Rededicating ourselves to summon the strength to engage those with whom we disagree, and standing up to those who target the vulnerable, to those who use hate opportunistically, to those who use the sacred individuality of each of us to divide, marginalize, and dehumanize. Rededicating ourselves to take steps – together – to ensure that we individually and collectively, as communities and as nations –never allow this to happen again. Here. Next door. Anywhere.