We must never forget lessons of WWII

Published 10:12 am Wednesday, May 12, 2010

During World War II, millions of families were torn apart in the wake of hatred and anti-Semitism. My own family suffered; we lost touch with my father’s Serbian relatives in Croatia, and we assumed they were killed along with thousands of Jews by the Ustase — Croatian Nazis.

My family’s story and the stories of thousands of others I’ve heard throughout my career have motivated me to fight the scourge of anti-Semitism and to stand up for Israel.

The Jewish people have been victims of anti-Semitism for millennia, but that hate impacts all of us in the community.

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I was honored to participate last month in the 2010 Holocaust Days of Remembrance ceremony in the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda, where members of Congress and community leaders joined together to remember and honor those lost during the Holocaust.

Lighting a candle in memory of those brutally murdered during the Holocaust is a humbling and important act. We cannot overlook the importance of mourning the six million people who were sentenced to die six decades ago not for what they did, but for who they were.

I began my activism for the Jewish community as a member of the Lawyers’ Committee for Soviet Jewry while a local office holder in Cleveland.

As a Cuyahoga County Commissioner we raised money for English tutors to help Soviet Jewish immigrants assimilate into our community.

When I became the mayor of Cleveland, I helped organize the city’s first Anne Frank exhibit as well as the first Holocaust commemoration.

I also strongly opposed our sister city relationship with the City of Volgograd, Russia due to their neglect of imprisoned Soviet Jews during the Cold War. It was my responsibility to protect the rights of my constituency, and I could not support a government that would not support its citizens.

In 1985, I was named honorary director of the National Council of the Jewish Women’s Holocaust Archives Program.

The program taped Holocaust survivors telling their harrowing stories of survival and loss, and I’m pleased that we have so many stories on tape to share with future generations.

For my actions as mayor, I was awarded the Tree of Life Award from the Jewish National Fund – one of the nicest things ever to happen to Janet and me.

My role in the Jewish community continued to expand as Governor of Ohio. I led 14 Ohio companies on the state’s first trade mission to Israel in 1993 to further promote shared business opportunities.

Under my leadership, we opened Ohio’s Middle East trade office to improve both Ohio’s communications and commerce in the region in 1996.

Since 1980, Janet and I have made nearly a dozen trips to Israel, and on each and every trip I see or learn something new that motivates me yet again to condemn anti-Semitism and work to eradicate it.

My visits to the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem and the Diaspora Museum were moving experiences that remain in my mind today.

Janet and I have also been greatly honored by the Jewish people on our visits to Israel.

The Jewish National Fund dedicated a recreational park in Israel to honor the memory of our daughter, Molly. The Molly Agnes Voinovich Memorial Forest is just 12 miles southeast of Haifa, overlooking Jezreel Valley.

I was also humbled when the Negev Foundation dedicated the Voinovich Agriculture Research Center in the Negev Desert, which is pioneering agricultural advances to improve life for Israelis.

I’m also proud of my work with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and have worked with the OSCE to prioritize eliminating this cancer of hatred before it can spread any further. The 2004 OSCE Berlin Declaration to combat anti-Semitism was a landmark moment in this battle, as the declaration proclaimed that international developments or politics can never justify anti-Semitism.

In 2007, the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights backed up the Berlin Declaration with $1 million in funding to fight anti-Semitism, including establishing a director of anti-Semitism. And in 2004, then-President George W. Bush signed into law a bill I introduced, the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act, which requires the State Department to monitor and combat global anti-Semitism and report annually to Congress.

Ohio and Israel share many ties that strengthen the bonds of friendship. I meet frequently with Ohioans who advocate for Israel and Jewish organizations, learning about their work and what I can do to help.

I’ve also asked for the State Department’s support for a cooperative agreement between Cleveland State University and an Israeli university to create a public administrative program to teach governance in hopes of promoting peace in Palestinian territories.

As I serve out my final year in the U.S. Senate I would like to thank the Jewish community, both at home and abroad, for your kindness and support throughout my time in public service.

It is vital for Americans to remember that our country’s united opposition to tyranny and discrimination is woven into every stitch of fabric in our nation’s flag.

Denial and ignorance costs us all. But in telling the stories of those who’ve gone before, we recognize them and learn from their sacrifices.

We do this to honor those who’ve passed, and we do this for those yet to come.

George Voinovich is a U.S. Senator representing Ohio.