28 January 2016
On 27 January 2016, International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, US President Barack Obama attended a unique ceremony honoring Righteous Among the Nations at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. The event, jointly hosted by the Israeli Embassy, Yad Vashem and the American Society for Yad Vashem, marked the first time that a ceremony presenting medals and certificates of honor to American Righteous Among the Nations was held in the United States.
The Righteous Among the Nations, Americans Roddie Edmonds and Lois Gunden and Polish citizens Walery and Maryla Zbijewski, were all posthumously recognized by Yad Vashem for risking their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The medals and certificates were accepted on their behalf by their next of kin.
Ahead of the event, Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev noted that "the thousands of men and women recognized over the past six decades as Righteous Among the Nations acted in a way that went against the active evil or passive silence that dominated their surroundings. Instead, they fought for the universal values that help our common civilization endure and prosper. Often acting alone, and in secret, the strength of the Righteous Among the Nations was deeply embedded in their morality and value system. These attributes form the common thread that binds members of this select, diverse group of people from many nations. The choices and actions of these individuals set an eternal example for humankind as they stood against the barbaric evil of the Nazis and their collaborators."
"The four lives we honor tonight make a claim on our conscience, as well as our moral imagination," said President Obama at the ceremony. "We hear their stories, and we are forced to ask ourselves, under the same circumstances, how would we act?" Decrying rising antisemitism around the world, the President insisted:
"When any Jew anywhere is targeted just for being Jewish, we all have to respond as Roddie Edmonds did: 'We are all Jews.'"
In a video greeting played at the event, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "We are forever indebted to [these Righteous] because of the Jewish children and Jewish soldiers who were saved due to their bravery."
Ambassador of Israel to the United States, H.E. Mr. Ron Dermer, thanked the President for attending the special event. "Your presence is a testament to the unique relationship between Israel and the United States... This is the first time that a sitting President has ever spoken in our Embassy in Washington." Recalling the courageous acts of the Righteous, the Ambassador said: "In honoring these four righteous souls tonight, let us not only recognize their remarkable heroism. Let us hope that their light will inspire us to... build a better future for all humanity."
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and himself a Holocaust survivor who was rescued by Righteous Among the Nations, recalled the terrifying six years he spent as a young child during the Holocaust, totally disconnected from the outside world. "But in this dark tunnel, there were some stars - the Righteous Among the Nations," to whom many Jews owed their lives. "As far as we are unable to forget the horror, we are also commanded to remember the people who risked their lives to save us."
Chairman of the American Society for Yad Vashem Leonard Wilf called the Righteous "true examples of courage and heroism for us and our children... As the son of two Holocaust survivors, this event gives me a strong sense of pride... despite the years that have passed, these stories carry timeless lessons for us all gathered here tonight - and indeed for all humanity."