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Remarks by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner at the Annual Day of Remembrance Ceremony

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner speaks at the Days of Remembrance Ceremony at the U.S. Capitol.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner delivered the following remarks today at the Days of Remembrance Ceremony at the US Capitol:

Mr. Speaker, Ambassador Oren, Speaker Westerberg, Chairman Bernstein, Vice Chairman Bolten, Director Bloomfield, survivors of the Holocaust, and other distinguished guests.

I am deeply honored to be here today.

The Museum asked me to speak about Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. and to tell the story of his leadership and the courageous work of his staff on behalf of European Jews during World War II.

Before I relate those events, I want to recognize Robert M. Morgenthau, Henry's son, who helps maintain the legacy of his father's work at Treasury. Bob could not be here today, because he is speaking at a Holocaust Remembrance event at West Point. We all admire his long and distinguished record of public service, and it is appropriate that we honor Bob as we honor his father.

I also want to pay tribute to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the men and women who have made it such a vital institution. Their work has helped show millions of people, in vivid and painful detail, the dangers of unchecked hatred.

And they have brought us together here in this great setting to remember not just the millions who died but also those who chose to act to save lives.

Henry Morgenthau served as Treasury Secretary from 1933 to 1945. He believed that individuals serving in government carry a moral responsibility. He was not constrained by the limits of his direct responsibility or authority. It didn't matter to Morgenthau that the Treasury Department was not the Department of War or the Department of State. He was not concerned with the risk of criticism or strength of the opposition to what he believed was right.

Morgenthau was prescient about the threat of war with Nazi Germany and the need for early U.S. involvement. In 1938, he persuaded President Roosevelt to give Treasury's Procurement Division significant authority over military purchasing policies—more than two years before the U.S. would begin its Lend-Lease program.

Morgenthau used this authority to help arm our allies and prepare the nation for war. He was instrumental in the effort to stockpile and ramp up production of war materials. And crucially, he enabled the UK and France to purchase U.S.-made aircraft—sometimes over the objections of the War Department and isolationists in Congress.

Later in the war, news of the mass murder of European Jews came to the attention of a small group of men at the Treasury.

Josiah DuBois, a Treasury assistant general counsel, and John Pehle, Treasury's chief of foreign funds control, uncovered mounting evidence that State Department officials were systematically undermining efforts to save Jews in Europe.

They were delaying licenses necessary to provide financial support to relief organizations in Europe—licenses that would have enabled the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews. They were denying visas to refugees. And they were blocking the spread of information about the Holocaust.

The State Department first received word of the "Final Solution" on August 11, 1942, in a message from Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress Representative in Bern, Switzerland. Upon receiving confirmation of the news that November, the Department then acted to suppress the evidence.

DuBois set to work on a report, which was presented to Secretary Morgenthau by General Counsel Randolph Paul on January 13, 1944. The memo bore a chilling title: "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews."

The first page read, "Unless remedial steps of a drastic nature are taken, and taken immediately, I am certain that no effective action will be taken by this Government to prevent the complete extermination of the Jews in German controlled Europe, and that this Government will have to share for all time the responsibility for this extermination."

Morgenthau moved quickly. That Sunday—January 16—Pehle, Randolph Paul, and Secretary Morgenthau met with President Roosevelt at 12:45 PM. They explained to the President that because other parts of the government were resisting action, the only solution was to create a body with independent authority in the matter of refugees. Roosevelt agreed, and six days later, he issued Executive Order 9417, which established the War Refugee Board.

The Board's charter declared that it would "effectuate with all possible speed the rescue and relief of victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death."

John Pehle was named Executive Director. At Morgenthau's direction, Pehle set up shop in an office on the fourth floor of the Treasury Department and began his work.

Pehle had to secure private funds for the vast majority of the Board's activity. But Pehle was industrious and relentless and effective.

He secured a haven for 1,000 Jews at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York. He helped purchase boats to ferry thousands of refugees out of Romania. Under his leadership, the War Refugee Board streamlined the process for issuing licenses, so that relief organizations in Europe could provide funds and aid within weeks of requesting it.   And the Board sent representatives to neutral countries, which assisted in evacuating Jews into safe territory.

One of those representatives was Treasury employee Iver Olson, who was sent to Sweden. In Stockholm, Olsen helped send a young Swede named Raoul Wallenberg under diplomatic cover into Hungary. Wallenberg's efforts saved as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews.

Iver Olson's son Jerry is with us today, along with George Lesser, whose father Lawrence Lesser also served on the War Refugee Board.

By the end of the war, the work of Pehle and the Board had saved some 200,000 Jews from almost certain death.

Years later, Pehle said, "What we did was little enough. It was late. Late and little."

But without the work of the War Refugee Board, and without the actions Morgenthau had taken to arm and prepare the Allies, the history of that time would have been even darker, with hundreds of thousands more killed.

When we think about the Holocaust, we are forced to come to terms with more than just the evil of Adolf Hitler. We must also confront the failures that allowed this genocide to occur—the moral failures, the institutional failures, the cowardice and apathy and hate.

Henry Morgenthau, John Pehle, and Joe DuBois refused to accept those failures.

They knew that when institutions fail, individuals must act. It did not matter to them whether it was in their job description or not.

When warned by an official of the political risks, Secretary Morgenthau responded, "Don't worry about the publicity. What I want is intelligence and courage."

These men understood their own power as individuals in public life to make a difference—their obligation to do so—and they took it very seriously.

I am proud to say that this tradition has continued at Treasury.

Stuart Eizenstat, as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury in the 1990s, helped achieve a measure of justice for victims of the Holocaust and European Jews, by negotiating—through sheer force of will and individual initiative—landmark agreements with foreign governments covering restitution, compensation for forced labor, recovery of looted art and money, and payment of insurance policies.

More recently, Under Secretary Stuart Levey and a group of individuals at Treasury built—from the ground up—the world's most creative and effective system of financial sanctions to stem the flow of money to terrorists and deter Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. Their work, led today by Under Secretary David Cohen, is crucial to thwarting those who would kill in the name of hatred.

We live in a world in which people still possess an alarming willingness to abuse, imprison, and murder others because of the god they worship or because they are different.

In confronting this reality, we are always reminded of the complexities of the world—the shades of grey, the intricacies of choice, the risks of action and inaction.

The world is indeed a complicated place. But our basic responsibilities as human beings are not. Protect the weak. Shelter those in need. Resist evil in all its forms.

These are our responsibilities. They cannot be fulfilled only with thoughtful reflection. They require action.

The Talmud says, "Whoever is able to protest against the transgressions of the world and does not, is responsible for the transgressions of the world."

John Pehle, Joe DuBois, Henry Morgenthau—these men understood. They protested against the transgressions of the world. And they made a difference.

Jarrod Bernstein is the Director of Jewish Outreach in the Office of Public Engagement.