by Dr. Cyril Mazansky
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, 8 December 1993
MR. WEINBERG, Doctor Abramowitz, Doctor Berenbaum, Doctor Gilbert, Ladies and Gentlemen: Somehow the usual introductory comments in any gathering would include welcome expressions of joy to all those attending, but this conventional introduction seems very out of place and inappropriate at such a time and place as this. Would it not have been infinitely better if there had never been the need for such an institution as this, or for Martin Gilbert not to have to have done the research for the presentation he is about to make? But history cannot and must not be rewritten. One should not agonize over such thoughts. Thus, in the context of this situation, I do welcome you all here this afternoon.
It is this Institution which will prevent attempts at rewriting history. To all of us who in a variety of ways helped to establish this Museum, to those of you who come to consolidate your knowledge and impressions of this great human tragedy, let us be reassured that there are those who count in the world who will not let that happen.
At the private reception held at the British Ambassador’s residence the other night, The Baroness Thatcher, in her address, berated the world for permitting genocide in Bosnia. Afterwards, I went up to her and indicated my appreciation for her comments and sentiments. In an impassioned tone, she told me how she had visited the Holocaust Museum that morning. She said, “It is necessary to have a place like the Museum. Let none believe that the Holocaust was any myth. It is all there and it is fact.”
Those privately-expressed feelings had added significance in view of Secretary Weinberger’s comment the other night that Margaret Thatcher is a true Churchill disciple and the greatest Prime Minister since Churchill. For all these reasons, it is why we as an organization focusing on Churchill must be present in these hallowed walls today as we commemorate our Society’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
A number of people mentioned to me, and I heard of others who expressed the feeling, that they would not be able emotionally to tolerate a visit to this Museum. I do sincerely understand what they feel. But it does bring to mind an episode when my father-in-law, who was a lucky émigré from Nazi Germany, went with my mother-in-law to see “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Being a woman both of great intellect and emotion, in the middle of the show she said to my father-in-law, “I cannot tolerate it anymore, I must leave.” He turned to her and said, “These people lived through it and died in it – you can sit and watch it.”
In the many months that I have had dealings with those individuals who have devoted their professional lives to this organization, they hale stressed a point to me. They have become very aware that, after such an emotionally draining experience as this Museum tour, people have great difficulty listening to lectures and merely want either to talk about the subject or to walk away deep in their thoughts. Although I took cognizance of their comments, I felt that our situation is somewhat different.
As a society that has committed itself to the philosophy and teaching, as well as the study of the life, of the man who gave everything he had to prevent and destroy the Nazi scourge on humanity, we are knowledgeable, we are committed; and some of us might even have witnessed or suffered the consequences of what he fought. The Holocaust is therefore not necessarily a new exposure for many of us.
There is also another significant difference as to why we can follow the tour with a lecture. To all of us here, Martin Gilbert stands very high in our regard as a respected and revered Honorary Member of our Society. He has devoted his life, meticulously, thoroughly and honestly, to researching and recording both the grand panorama of an era as well as every minutia of this giant among men, Winston Churchill.
There still remains a third reason why we can sit down and attentively absorb every word that he utters. For Martin Gilbert is also one of the great authorities and respected writers on the Holocaust.
The combination of these two great bases of knowledge, together with a third attribute – his gifted oratory skills affords us and indeed the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a very rare, possibly unique and surely great opportunity. For such an opportunity, the emotions are never sufficiently drained; the mind is never too numbed; the body never too fatigued to absorb what he has to tell us.
Thus, as Martin and I have planned and prepared for this presentation today, I know we will be inspired, fulfilled and expect answers provided to long-sought questions. Ladies and gentlemen, let us all welcome Martin Gilbert
Afterword: A Personal Memoir
Dr. Cyril Mazansky
TODAY has indeed been a very long, draining and, for many people I think, a rather painful day. If you would kindly bear with me and can sit through several more minutes, I would like to give you a very personal perspective on why this day and Martin’s speech have had such great significance to me. For the many young people here, I may be able to touch in a real way what this is all about.
A couple of years ago on a trip to Israel, my younger brother visited Yad Vashem, their Holocaust Memorial, to record the names of my father’s family who had perished in the Holocaust. He found that they had already been recorded there as long ago as 1953 by one Leah Slonimsky, who was listed as living on a Kibbutz in the north of Israel by the Sea of Galilee. Months of research ultimately brought him into contact with her there, where she still lives today. He forwarded this information to me just a few days before I was leaving on a trip to Israel with my family.
I immediately rearranged my schedule and had our private guide take us to the Kibbutz. We arrived there at lunchtime and were directed to her apartment. Her family later told us that she had been apprehensive for most of the week since I had contacted her, in an extremely emotional state over my visit.
As this diminutive woman of eighty years emerged through her front door, she threw her arms around me and stood weeping on the steps for several minutes. Over refreshments, with our tour guide acting as the interpreter, she unfolded to us the story of my family’s annihilation.
Leah had been a lifelong and very close friend of my Aunt Channah. In 1934, Leah immigrated to Israel from Ponavez in Lithuania where my father’s family lived as her neighbors. After the war, she was told the story of their murders, as well as those of her own family, by a Jewish survivor who had joined the partisans and witnessed their deaths.
One day in August 1941, exactly in the time period Martin referred to with the secret transmissions, as the Germans were rapidly approaching Ponavez, the local peasants herded the Jewish population into the forest. There they made them dig their own graves, undress, and, among others, my grandmother, my Aunt Channah, my Uncle Chaim and my Uncle Moishe, together with their spouses and my first cousins, were cold-bloodedly shot. Please God, may their souls rest in peace.
Leah then gave me photographs of my family, which she had in her possession from the 1930s. They are now permanently preserved in these walls. As we left, our guide, who is an extremely intelligent, very sensitive individual and a native-born Israeli, nearly knocked me over with the statement: “It is stories like this that have made the State of Israel. There are many of us in Israel who believe that, if it were not for the Holocaust, there never would have been a State of Israel.” That is why this Museum tour ends in the glorification of the creation of the State of Israel. Good will always be victorious over evil.
UNTIL today, ladies and gentlemen, the nagging questions that I have always had, with all my deep respect and adoration for Winston Churchill, were: What did he know about this mass murder? If he knew, what did he try to do about it? And why was more not done by the Allies?
In some way, hearing the comment of our tour guide gave me a partial answer and a satisfactory rationalization. But the fact that Churchill gave the last ounce of his energy and total force to destroy one of the most vicious barbarians that humanity has ever produced and thus allowed the free world to survive, indicated to me that, regardless of anything else, he had already played the instrumental role in the ultimate salvation of the remnants of the Jewish people.
Up until today, I have satisfactorily rationalized my family’s tragedies with the overall British and Allied efforts. I knew that if it were not for Churchill’s superhuman efforts and unequaled leadership, particularly in the dark days of 1940 and 1941 when he was the sole bastion against that evil empire and its cadre of nefarious thugs, neither British nor Western civilization as we know it would have survived. Certainly, the Jews, never mind the Jewish State, would not now be in existence. And for me that is more than enough reason to revere this individual who must be considered among the greatest of non-Jewish friends of the Jewish people.
In fact, I found my conclusion was in agreement with the description of Martin Gilbert, in his eloquent and moving tribute to Emery Reves in the 25th Anniversary issue of Finest Hour, where he wrote: “No wonder that Reves saw Churchill as a savior: had Britain not taken up arms against Nazi rule in 1939, and persevered despite great odds throughout 1940 and 1941, and then led the coalition against Hitler until the Nazi system was totally destroyed, how many more millions might have perished is a question not for doubt, but for arithmetic.”
But this is still in the category of a generalization. Today, Martin, you have gone even further. You have provided the factual evidence to indicate that Churchill gave everything of himself, both personally and politically, not only to the destruction of that blight on humanity, but also very specifically to try to save the Jewish people. That he could do no more was only the result of factors well beyond his control. For me personally, you have now provided the complete answer – rationally, intellectually and emotionally. And that is worth everything. Thank you.
©Dr. Cyril Mazansky, All Rights Reserved