On Sunday, I joined with my wife, Miriam, and my dear friend and partner in Birthright Israel, Michael Steinhardt, to welcome to Cooper Union the two people in the world most closely identified with standing up to genocide: Professor Elie Wiesel and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
Seventy years ago in Europe, my people, the Jews, were dying at a rate of 10,000 per day, murdered in the most gruesome manner by the Nazis. Poisoned gas filled the lungs daily of thousands of children in places whose names have become synonymous with mass murder: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, Dachau and countless other concentration camps. The world turned a blind eye to the mass killings.
When it did report about the slaughter, The New York Times, for example, buried the reports deep within its pages, as if it were secondary, inconsequential news. And sadly even democratic governments, which otherwise did an admirable job in fighting and eventually defeating the Nazis, refused to bomb the train tracks to Auschwitz, which would have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of European Jews. Had England not issued the White Paper, which essentially shut the door to European Jews wanting to immigrate to Palestine, the Holocaust might have been prevented or at least reduced in severity.
And yet, when the war was over, a world that had watched in silence as the Jews were annihilated declared itself sickened by the specter of 6 million lying dead, including 1.5 million children. The call that went forth from the Holocaust was universal: never again. The world committed itself to preventing genocide, wherever it might occur.
And yet, it did happen again—and again and again.
Just 30 years later, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge slaughtered one-quarter of the Cambodian population in killing fields that claimed the lives of an estimated 2.5 million people. Twenty years after that, the world watched and did absolutely nothing as nearly 1 million Tutsis in Rwanda were slaughtered by Hutus in the fastest genocide in world history, with about 300 dying every hour for three months. It took a leader of military genius named Paul Kagame, who joined me Sunday night, to finally decide that, since the world would not come to the rescue of his people, he must put an end to the slaughter himself. In three months, his RPF forces conquered the entire country of Rwanda and ended the genocide.
And yet mass killings continued elsewhere, in the former Yugoslavia, in Bosnia and Kosovo, with NATO finally deciding to launch a bombing campaign that would end the slaughter. And still more than 1 million have been lost in the Sudan, in Darfur, with the world doing little to end the killing.
It is to the memory of the millions whose lives have been taken in genocides that this evening is dedicated.
Miriam’s mother’s family was annihilated almost in its entirety in the Holocaust, with only Miri’s mother surviving because she had the foresight to travel to Israel prior to the war’s breakout. Half of Miriam’s father’s family perished. Since then, Miri and I have directed our philanthropy to the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem so that the memory of the 6 million lost is never forgotten.
We founded and financed a program aimed at any teacher in the world who has an interest in the Holocaust, of which there are many, and the program consists of bringing them to Israel for 10 days, all expenses included, for lectures and direction on how to teach their students about the Holocaust. That way, there is a greater assurance that that genocide will not be forgotten. Miri and I publicly committed on Sunday to continue our dedication to preserving the memory of the martyred 6 million. In doing so, we are following the direction of our God, who said “zachor,” meaning you must remember.
We are likewise proud and honored to have sponsored Sunday’s event, featuring the world’s two most important names in genocide memory. Our dear friend, Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, is one of the greatest humanitarians of our time and is the very face of world holocaust consciousness. The second, President Paul Kagame, is the only man on Earth who can claim to have stopped genocide.
As U.N. Week comes to a close, we must together ask the world to speak with one voice against genocide. It comes down to a simple, moral imperative. It is the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak and to fight the ongoing slaughter of innocents in other parts of the world.
Sheldon G. Adelson is the chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and the founder, with his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, of the Adelson Foundation.
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