I had the good fortune to be a Jew born and raised in the U.S.A. My father left Odessa bound for the New World in 1909, at age 13; my mother was first in her large family to be born here, in 1903, just a few months after her parents and older siblings landed in New York. What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a Supreme Court Justice? Just one generation, my mother’s life and mine bear witness. Where else but America could that happen?
My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest: a large silver mezuzah on my door post, [a] gift from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn; on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: “Zedek, zedek, tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they “may thrive.”
But today, here in the Capitol, the lawmaking heart of our nation, in close proximity to the Supreme Court, we remember in sorrow that Hitler’s Europe, his Holocaust kingdom, was not lawless. Indeed, it was a kingdom full of laws, laws deployed by highly educated people — teachers, lawyers, and judges — to facilitate oppression, slavery and mass murder. We convene to say “Never again,” not only to Western history’s most unjust regime, but also to a world in which good men and women, abroad and even in the U.S.A., witnessed or knew of the Holocaust kingdom’s crimes against humanity, and let them happen.
The world’s failure to stop the atrocities of the Third Reich was perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Hungary, where the Holocaust descended late in the war. But when it came, it advanced with brutal speed. Hungary was the first country in Europe to adopt an anti-Jewish law after World War I, a short-lived measure that restricted the admission of Jews to institutions of higher learning. In the main, however, that nation’s 800,000 Jews lived free from terror until 1944. Although 63,000 Hungarian Jews lost their lives before the German occupation — most of them during forced service, under dreadful conditions, in labor battalions — Hungary’s leaders staved off German demands to carry out the Final Solution until March 19, 1944, when Hitler’s troops occupied the country.
Then, overnight, everything changed. Within three and a half months of the occupation, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported. Four trains a day, each transporting up to 3,000 people packed together like freight, left Hungary for Auschwitz, where most of the passengers were methodically murdered. This horrendous time is chronicled unforgettably by Hungarian Holocaust survivors and Nobel Prize winners Elie Wiesel, today’s lead speaker, and Imre Kertész, in their captivating works, “Night” and “Fateless.”
What happened to Hungary’s Jews is a tragedy beyond reckoning. For, unlike earlier deportations, the deportations in Hungary began and relentlessly continued after the tide had turned against the Axis, and after the Nazis’ crimes against humanity had been exposed. Less than a week after the German occupation of Hungary, President Roosevelt delivered a speech reporting that “the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour” and that Hungarian Jews were now among those “threatened with annihilation.” Yet, the world, for the most part, did not rise up to stop the killing.
I say for the most part because, as swiftly as the Hungarian Holocaust happened, heroes emerged. Raoul Wallenberg, a member of Sweden’s most prominent banking family, arrived in Budapest in July 1944, and worked with the War Refugee Board — established by President Roosevelt just six months earlier — to protect tens of thousands of Jews from deportation. Wallenberg distributed Swedish protective passports; he purchased or leased buildings, draped them with Swedish flags as diplomatically immune territory, and used them as safe havens for Jews. Through these devices, he was directly responsible for saving 20,000 people. Wallenberg carried food and medical supplies to Jews on forced marches from Budapest to Austria; he sometimes succeeded in removing Jews from the marches by insisting they were protected Swedish citizens. He has been credited with saving some 100,000 Jews in the Budapest ghetto by forestalling attacks on that population by Hungary’s anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party. In January 1945, Wallenberg met with Soviet officials to gain relief for the Budapest Jews. He did not return from that journey.
Wallenberg and the War Refugee Board are perhaps the best-known rescuers of Jews trapped in the Hungarian Holocaust. In fact, many others, Jews and Gentiles alike, also rose to the occasion. Some remain unknown for their individual deeds of heroism; others, including Carl Lutz of Switzerland, saved Jews on a larger scale. All the life savers were grand humans. But most of the world stood by in silence. Knowing what a few courageous souls accomplished in Hungary in short time, one can but ask: How many could have been saved throughout Europe had legions of others, both individuals and nations, the United States among them, intervened earlier?
I was fortunate to be a child, a Jewish child, safely in America during the Holocaust. Our nation learned from Hitler’s racism and, in time, embarked on a mission to end law-sanctioned discrimination in our own country. In the aftermath of World War II, in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in the burgeoning Women’s Rights movement of the 1970s, “We the People” expanded to include all of humankind, to embrace all the people of this great nation. Our motto, E Pluribus Unum, of many one, signals our appreciation that we are the richer for the religious, ethnic, and racial diversity of our citizens.
I am proud to live in a country where Jews are not afraid to say who we are, the second country after Israel to have set aside a day each year, this day, to remember the Holocaust, to learn of and from that era of inhumanity, to renew our efforts to repair the world’s tears. I feel the more secure because this capital city includes a museum dedicated to educating the world, so that all may know, through proof beyond doubt, that the unimaginable in fact happened.
It is fitting, I hope you agree, as I conclude these remarks, to recite another line from Deuteronomy: U’vacharta b’chaim. It means: Choose life. As did the survivors who somehow managed to stay alive, to carry on, and to tell their stories; as did Jews and Christians, in ghettos and in camps, who gave their lives endeavoring to save the lives of others; as did Budapest itself, where the city’s Great Synagogue still opens its doors, the second largest synagogue in the world, the shul in which Theodore Herzl was bar mitzvahed, a structure so impressive visitors from my home state might recognize it as the model for Central Synagogue in New York City.
We gather here today, little more than a week after Passover, the holiday when Jews recount their journey from slavery to freedom. We retell the Passover, just as we commemorate the Holocaust, to educate our children, to remember those who died striving for a better world, and to rejoice in the resistance of the Jewish people to evil fortune, armed with the courage and faith that has enabled them to survive through centuries of exiles, plunderings, and persecutions.
The Passover story we retell is replete with miracles. But unlike our ancestors in their Exodus from Egypt, our way is unlikely to be advanced by miraculous occurrences. In striving to drain dry the waters of prejudice and oppression, we must rely on measures of our own creation — upon the wisdom of our laws and the decency of our institutions, upon our reasoning minds and our feeling hearts. And as a constant spark to carry on, upon our vivid memories of the evils we wish to banish from our world. In our long struggle for a more just world, our memories are among our most powerful resources.
May the memory of those who perished remain vibrant to all who dwell in this fair land, people of every color and creed. May that memory strengthen our resolve to aid those at home and abroad who suffer from injustice born of ignorance and intolerance, to combat crimes that stem from racism and prejudice, and to remain ever engaged in the quest for democracy and respect for the human dignity of all the world’s people.
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