Ambassador Gilchrist’s Remarks for the Conference
A Divisive Past: The Soviet-German War and Narratives of Mass Violence in East Central Europe
Friday, June 4, 2021
As prepared for delivery
Speaker Čmilytė-Nielsen, Mayor Šimašius, Ambassador Levy, Ambassador Sonn, Dr. Nikžentaitis, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for the honor of joining you today as we mark this somber occasion — the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Holocaust in Lithuania. As we seek open dialogue about the past, it is fitting that this event is dedicated to the memory of Irena Veisaitė. Her life story as a Holocaust survivor, her work as a human rights activist, and her relentless advocacy for truth and forgiveness are a lesson for us all.
Irena’s passing last year reminds us of how little time we have left with those who survived the Holocaust — the eyewitnesses whose testimonies leave no doubt: this happened. The magnitude of the human suffering during the Holocaust is almost unimaginable, but the eyewitness testimonies affirm the devastation brought about by intolerance.
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, President Biden reminded us that “the Holocaust was no accident of history.” It happened because governments implemented hate-fueled laws and practices that vilified and dehumanized entire groups of people — and too many individuals stood by silently.
Silence is complicity.
Eighty years after the start of this tragedy of unspeakable proportions — this tragedy of unspeakable proportions in Lithuania — we cannot remain silent in the face of efforts to distort history. We may not be the eyewitnesses, but we can speak their truth.
To diminish the suffering of Lithuania’s Jewish population or memorialize Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis threatens the bedrock values of our transatlantic alliance — the values that define who we are.
Let me be clear: the dark side of history is not Lithuania’s burden alone to bear. No country’s history is without difficult moments. In the past 10 days in the United States, we have commemorated the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
And in our present, we, too, see rising anti-Jewish vandalism, harassment, and assault. President Biden has condemned a sudden surge in antisemitic attacks.
We must acknowledge history. By not acknowledging it, by not addressing it head-on — honestly and frankly — we allow those who wish ill to Lithuania and other allies to write the narrative. We allow them to use historical memory as a wedge issue that tears at social cohesion, undermines democracy, and justifies their own disregard for fundamental freedoms.
We must acknowledge history. We must confront rising levels of antisemitism around the globe. We owe it to the eyewitnesses to speak their truth.
In addressing the Bundestag more than two decades ago, acclaimed historian Yehuda Bauer issued a call to conscience: “thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.”
Recognizing the divisiveness of the past is among the first steps in living up to this shared obligation. This conference is an important step, but it can’t stop here. The discussions, the presentations, what we learn here must influence public discussion about the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania. We owe it to the eyewitnesses — eyewitnesses like Irena Veisaitė.
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.