Obama at Buchenwald: 'We Must Be Ever-Vigilant'

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says he has "high hopes" for Obama.

June 2, 2009, 4:05 PM

DRESDEN, Germany, June 5, 2009— -- President Obama today made an emotionally charged visit to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany and called for continued action to combat intolerance and hatred in all its forms.

"These sites have not lost their horror with the passage of time," Obama observed after touring the camp.

The president's visit included viewings of the camp's ovens and crematorium, as well as the guard towers and barbed wire fences that imprisoned thousands .

"We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished," Obama said, admonishing Holocaust deniers and "those who perpetuate every form of intolerance -- racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism and more -- hatred that degrades its victims and diminishes us all."

Obama delivered his remarks while standing in front of the camp entrance, where the clock is frozen at 3:15, "the hour of liberation" on April 11, 1945.

Reflecting on the Holocaust and even more recent acts of genocide, Obama said, "This place teaches us that we must be ever-vigilant about the spread of evil in our own time, that we must reject the false comfort that others' suffering is not our problem, and commit ourselves to resisting those who would subjugate others to serve their own interests."

An estimated 56,000 people, mostly Jews, died at Buchenwald during World War II, including the father of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner who accompanied Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the tour.

Wiesel was 16 years old when the camp was liberated by American forces. His father died in the camp, in a bed near his son.

"He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there," Wiesel recalled.

He said he came back to Buchenwald today to visit his father's grave, but it was not there.

"His grave is somewhere in the sky, which has become… the largest cemetery of the Jewish people," he said.

Obama toured the area known as "Little Camp," where Wiesel and his brother were sent as young boys. He noted that there is a picture of then-16-year-old Elie in a bunk bed with other children.

The president laid a white rose down on the camp's living memorial, "a steel plate… that is heated to 37 degrees Celsius, the temperature of the human body, a reminder, where people were deemed inhuman because of their differences, of the mark that we all share," he said.

Obama: 'It Is Important to Bear Witness'

The Buchenwald visit has personal significance for Obama, whose great-uncle Charles Payne was part of a military unit that helped liberate a nearby satellite camp in 1945.

Payne told ABC News that he remembered what he saw: "Most of them [were] in advance stage of starvation and wearing the most pitiful kind of rags. And [they were] overjoyed to be liberated from the camp."

"You can see where the machine gun had been sitting, behind some bushes," he continued. "And they had their tin cups, clearly thinking they were going to get food, and they got shot instead."

Obama, who has never before visited a concentration camp, said it was important for him to make the stop.

"It is up to us to bear witness, to ensure that the continues -- the world continues to note what happened here, to remember all those who survived and all those who perished, and to remember them not just as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed just like us," he said.

"And just as we identify with the victims, it's also important for us, I think, to remember that the perpetrators of such evil were human as well, and that we have to guard against cruelty in ourselves. And I want to express particular thanks to Chancellor Merkel and the German people because it's not easy to look into the past in this way, and acknowledge it and make something of it -- make a determination that they will stand guard against acts like this happening again."

Wiesel said he hopes Obama can affect change.

"Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you, because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place where people will stop waging war. Every war is absurd and meaningless. Where people will stop hating one another. Where people will hate the otherness of the other rather than respect it," he said.

Earlier in the day Obama continued his push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palistinean peace process, telling the Palestinians they have responsibilities to uphold in the ongoing efforts for a settlement.

Obama said that while his statements telling the Israelis to stop settlement construction have received significant attention, there has been less focus on the pressure he is putting on the Palestinians and Arab states to take concrete actions to move closer to peace.

"When it comes to the Palestinians, we know what they're supposed to be doing. They have to continue to make progress on security in the West Bank. They have to deal with incitement issues," he said.

Obama Sending Envoy to Middle East

Obama said the Palestinian Authority has not offered a firm commitment to control the border areas that Israel has concerns about in a two-state solution, and he also called out the Palestinian authority for corruption and mismanagement.

The president said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas could do more. "Now I think, to his credit, President Abbas has made progress on this issue -- but not enough."

Obama said the moment to act is now and announced he was dispatching his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, back to the region next week to sit down with all the relevant parties. He acknowledged that the United States "can't force peace" but credited his young administration with "extraordinary progress.""

"You've probably seen more sustained activity on this issue in the first five months than you would have seen in most previous administrations," he said.

Obama reiterated the cautionary tone that White House officials used yesterday and noted that his speech in Cairo, while highly anticipated and long in the works, was "just one speech."

"It doesn't replace all the hard work that's going to have to be done, that was done before the speech and that's going to have to be done in the years to come in order to solve what has been a 60 year problem," he said.

Obama spent last night in Dresden, Germany, a city destroyed in a two-day bombing campaign in February 1945 and rebuilt only after German reunification. Today he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Dresden Castle, which was severely damaged during that air attack and has yet to be completely rebuilt.

Thursday in Cairo in a speech aimed at the Muslim world, Obama issued a scathing rebuke to Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists.

"Six million Jews were killed, more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful," he said.

Asked whether he was doing everything possible to stop genocide around the world so that "never again" is not just a hollow refrain, Obama explained what the phrase means to him but not what he was doing.

"On the issue of genocide, I think "never again" means that the international community has an obligation, even when it's inconvenient, to act when genocide is occurring," he said.

He focused on his administration's efforts on Darfur, where he recently dispatched a special envoy, General Scott Gration, but did not address Sri Lanka or the broader question on genocide.

Obama-Merkel Affirms U.S.-German Ties

Earlier today, President Obama met one-on-one with Merkel and both leaders affirmed the close relationship between the United States and Germany.

Obama said it is essential for the two nations to work together with the global community to make progress on national security, economic issues and climate change.

In their meeting, the two leaders discussed Afghanistan and Iran. Obama said the United States was committed to "serious dialogue" with Iran but it needs to be in cooperation with Germany, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Obama said Merkel is open to discussions about Guantanamo Bay but he has not asked for hard commitments and she has not offered any, other than discussions about ways to move forward.

"I don't anticipate it's going to be resolved any time in the next two or three months," he said.

Merkel reiterated her longstanding view that Guantanamo Bay should be shut down and expressed confidence that they will find a common solution.

Right out of the gate at a press conference, Obama had to defend his schedule here after criticism in the German media about how long he was staying here and where he chose to visit. Obama chalked it up to scheduling and said there are only so many hours in the day and he has a lot to fit in on a short trip.

Later today, Obama is scheduled to visit American service members at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

On Saturday, Obama plans to mark the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion with remarks at Normandy and a tour of the American Cemetery there. The president is expected to recognize the service of American veterans who will be in the audience for his speech and underscore the sacred trust the government has to veterans.

Also on the agenda is a meeting with French President Nikolas Sarkozy and an outing with Mrs. Obama and the first daughters, who will join the president in Paris.

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