At the Buchenwald concentration camp Friday afternoon, President Obama spoke about the lessons of the Holocaust after touring the camp with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
“If these trees could talk," Wiesel said to the president on their tour of the camp, which sits on the northern slope of Ettersberg mountain, five miles north of Weimar.
“We saw the ovens, the crematorium, the guard towers, the barbed wire fences, the foundations of barracks that once held people in the most unimaginable conditions,” the president said, standing at the Tower entrance to the camp, where the clock is frozen at 3:15, “the hour of liberation” on April 11, 1945. “More than half a century later, our grief and our outrage over what happened have not diminished.”
“I will not forget what I have seen here today,” the president said.
More than 56,000 people perished at Buchenwald, including Wiesel’s father, whom the Nobel Peace Prize recipient memorialized today.
Wiesel said his visit was partly to visit his father's grave, though his father has no actual grave. “His grave is somewhere in the sky which has become…the largest cemetery of the Jewish people,” Wiesel said, describing the day his father died as one of the darkest in his life.
“He became sick, weak, and I was there,” Wiesel said. “I was there when he suffered. I was there when he asked for help, for water. I was there to receive his last words, but I was not there when he called for me, although we were on the same block, he on the upper bed and I on the lower bed. He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there.”
The president visited an area called the "Little Camp," where Wiesel and another survivor accompanying them, Bertrand Herz, were kept as boys. Mr. Obama noted that a 16-year-old Wiesel is visible in a photograph on display at that part of the memorial.
The president said he’d known about Buchenwald since he was a boy hearing stories about his grandmother’s brother Charles Payne, who was a soldier during World War II with the 89th Infantry Division, the first Americans to reach a concentration camp. Payne had helped liberate Ohrdruf, one of 130 of Buchenwald’s satellite camps and extension units.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower made sure not only that the horrors of the camp were documented by civilian news media and military camera units, but that every free soldier visit Ohrdruf and Buchenwald to see why they were fighting – and what they were fighting against.
Ike later wrote to his wife , “I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality, and savagery could really exist in this world.” He cabled General George Marshall and told him to visit and to bring Members of Congress and journalists. Eisenhower said he went to the camps “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.’”
President Obama said the work of making sure the world knows about the Holocaust remains unfinished.
“To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful,” the president said. “This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.”
Buchenwald, the president said, “teaches us that we must be ever-vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we mustreject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem,and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests.”
But Mr. Wiesel reminded the president that the West’s frequent promise of “Never Again” has been an empty promise.
He said he thought one day he’d return to the camp to speak to his father’s ghost and tell him the memory of the Holocaust had become a “sacred duty” for all people to prevent anything like it from ever happening again.
“What can I tell him?” asked Wiesel, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. “That the world has learned?”
‘Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia,” Wiesel said. “Will the world ever learn?”
Earlier in the day, asked if he was doing everything he could to make sure “never again” is not a hollow refrain -- especially with genocide continuing in Darfur -- President Obama said he had assigned one of his closest national security advisors, General Scott Gration, as a special envoy to the Sudan.
Gration was trying to “not only solve the immediate humanitarian crisis that exists and that was made worse when President Bashir kicked out many of the international non-governmental organizations that have been providing humanitarian assistance,” but to “reactivate the possibilities of a peace settlement between Khartoum and some of the rebels in Darfur that would allow the internally displaced people from Darfur to start returning to their homes.”
The president said his administration was “spending a lot of time trying to make sure that we make progress and that the people of Darfur are able to return to their homes and live in peace.”
He did not actually answer the question as to whether he was doing everything he could to try to stop the genocide.