When many of us reflect on the Holocaust, the horrific gas chambers and ovens of the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka immediately come to mind. Yet in parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, there is a lesser known aspect of the terrible genocide perpetrated against Jews, Roma, and other victims of the Nazis and their allies between 1941 and 1945. During this period, death squads of German soldiers and local collaborators carried out mass executions of millions of men, women and children, leaving remains in unmarked mass graves. This so-called "Holocaust by Bullets" is the subject of a documentary produced by Yahad-In Unum.
On January 28, the State Department marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day by inviting foreign diplomats, NGO representatives, academics, and others to view the documentary and participate in a discussion.
In welcoming everyone to the event, Under Secretary Maria Otero noted, "Today is an important occasion. Each year we gather together to commemorate the victims of one of the worst tragedies in human history. Indeed, almost 70 years after the end of World War Two, we continue to honor those whose lives were brutally taken during the Holocaust because they were Jewish, Roma, or from some other group targeted by the Nazis."
I reflected on my tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, where I saw how the legacy of this abomination still affects the entire population. It is part of the everyday experience of people living there. You do not need to go to a death camp to be confronted with the evidence of mass murder. Rather, you drive or walk past a depression in the earth and someone will say, "Oh, that is where they killed my grandparents." Before the war, large Jewish populations lived in Minsk and other cities in Belarus. They were even the majority in some cases. After the war, all but a handful of the Belarusian Jews were dead. The story was similar in the Baltics and Ukraine and in parts of the Russian Federation, all of which struggle to cope with the lasting impact this genocide has had on their communities, cultures, politics, and economies.
U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson moderated a panel discussion on reinvigorating efforts to memorialize the horrors of the Holocaust as a means to prevent such atrocities in the future. French Roman Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois of Yahad-In Unum, described in detail the work of his organization (whose name is derived from the Hebrew and Latin words for unity) to systematically identify and document every mass execution site during World War II and, "to irrevocably refute the Holocaust deniers of today and tomorrow, to serve as a permanent warning to humanity of the dangers of genocide and to allow for the respectful remembrance of the fallen."
One of the great tragedies of the Holocaust is that the message "Never Again" was unfortunately not heeded in many parts of the world in the latter half of the 20th century. Taking active measures to make "never again" a reality, President Obama has created the Atrocities Prevention Board (APB), which helps the U.S. government identify and address atrocity threats, thus making the prevention of atrocities a key focus of this Administration's foreign policy. As the increasingly-connected international community moves into the 21st century, we must all redouble our efforts. Through such entities as the Atrocities Prevention Board, we can ensure mass murder, such as that which occurred during the Holocaust, is never repeated. We all have the power to be agents of future positive change.