Prepared remarks: Attorney General Phil Weiser at 2021 U.S. Air Force Academy Days of Remembrance event (April 7, 2021)
Thanks, Chaplain Saul Rappeport, for that kind introduction. It is an honor to be here—virtually—with you all. I very much appreciate Lieutenant General Clark and Colonel Brian Hartless inviting me to join you today. And to all the cadets and staff of the Academy, thank you for your service and for defending our nation’s commitment to liberty and justice for all.
Holocaust Remembrance Day is a meaningful commemoration for my family. That is because my mom was born on Friday, April 13th, 1945—in a Nazi concentration camp. She was liberated several days later, along with my grandparents, by the United States Armed Forces, making her one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. For my family, the Holocaust shaped my upbringing, as my grandparents and my mom found refuge in the United States of America. From that, we hold an abiding gratitude and respect for the freedoms and compassion of this great country, and, above all, never take our nation’s freedoms for granted.
The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to behold. The numbers of Jews who were murdered—six million—is difficult to comprehend. And the number of non-Jews killed by the Nazis was in the millions as well. The sheer horror of the Holocaust is why we say “Never Again and Never Forget.” For those of you who have the chance to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or in Jerusalem, I strongly encourage you to do so—this experience provides a glimpse of the horrors of this part of our recent history.
How we choose to remember the Holocaust and what lessons we take from this chapter matters to how we live our lives today. To that end, let me take you through a bit of my family’s story and how this experience shaped me. In short, my family’s story is one of hope and resilience.
Growing up, I would ask my grandmother, who I called “Bubby,” how she could believe in a positive future when she confronted such a horrific experience. She answered simply, “it is easier to believe.” That message resonates today and inspires my service to Colorado as our Attorney General.
My grandparents came from a town in Southeast Poland called Biecz. After the Nazi invasion and occupation of their country in 1939, life grew increasingly worse for the Polish Jews. It began with the Jews being forced to live in a crowed ghetto, and ended with their murder. Before World War II, three million Jews lived in Poland. After the Holocaust, only 300,000 survived, most of whom had fled to Russia. Out of 1,000 Jews in Biecz, only 16—an incomprehensible 1.6% of this group—survived the war. You can calculate the odds that both of my grandparents would be 2 of the 16. And try to calculate the odds on top of that, that my mom could be conceived in a concentration camp and be born just before liberation. A true miracle.
My grandmother’s resilience is a remarkable story. When the Nazis invaded Poland, my grandfather was sent to a work camp near Krakow. My grandmother, with her young child, Moshe, needed to find refuge to escape the mass killings occurring in Biecz. Because of her baby, she could not hide in the attic with relatives. But, as it later turned out, all of those relatives were killed. My grandmother thus went into the forest where she saw a flickering cigarette in the distance, indicating to her that an SS officer was on patrol. She backtracked and went to a farm on the outskirts of town, owned by the Kosiba family. Mr. Kosiba knew my grandmother, and had promised to protect her family.
When my grandmother appeared at the Kosiba farm, Mr. Kosiba initially refused to admit her and her child into his home, explaining, “the Germans are killing all Poles who hide Jews.” She begged, pleaded, and promised that if she was discovered, she would claim she had snuck in and hid without his knowledge. Mr. Kosiba permitted her to stay for one day and gave her food. My grandmother gave Mr. Kosiba funds to purchase train tickets for her and Ira Goetz, a twelve-year-old boy who had independently fled to the Kosiba farm, the day the mass killings occurred in Beicz. Years later, Ira Goetz, my parents, my wife, and I returned to that farm to thank the Kosiba family.
Amazingly, my grandmother, Moshe, and Ira all made it by train to Krakow, near where my grandfather had been sent to a work camp. My grandmother had hoped to stay with her family in the Krakow ghetto but without legal identity papers, she could not. With the help of an acquaintance from Biecz, she rented a room near my father’s all-male work camp. And she benefited from grace, including from a German officer who took an interest in Moshe and checked on him during the day, while my grandmother worked. Deeply grateful, she offered the officer a diamond earring. Astonishingly, he refused. “Keep it, you’ll need it to take care of your baby.”
During a routine forced march, however, Moshe was separated from my grandmother and her child was murdered. This was the norm and, remarkably, my grandmother was not killed with him. My grandparents were then sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, my grandmother to Leipzig Schoenfeld, the women’s division of Buchenwald, and my grandfather was brought to the men’s division. They worked grueling days for 12 to 14 hours, their main meal consisting of a watery vegetable soup and a piece of bread. At Buchenwald, my grandparents somehow managed to find intimate time together.
In December 1944, five months after my grandmother’s arrival at Buchenwald, she was startled by the sensation of a baby moving in her womb. A friend skeptically said, “How could you possibly be pregnant? My belly is larger than yours?” Her friend’s hand on my grandmother’s stomach convinced her of my mother’s existence. The odds of having a child were very low at best. While my grandmother was only 32 years old, her experiences in the ghetto and camps significantly impacted her fertility—she was perpetually hungry and was weakened from typhus that killed many of her fellow inmates that spring. But she had a powerful wish to live. Even as my grandmother felt fearful, hungry, and tired, she was hopeful. Through the camp grapevine, she sent a message to my grandfather, “You have reason to live.” My grandfather was delighted by the news, but my furious great uncle, Shlomo, scolded him for endangering my grandmother’s life.
As Shlomo predicted, on a bleak, freezing early January morning in 1945, during roll call, 6,000 women were forced to stand in the cold, wearing scratchy, striped cotton uniforms, as a communal punishment for news of women in the camp being pregnant. To relieve the communal shivering and tension, my grandmother was the first person to step forward and reveal her pregnancy. The guard yelled, “You are out on the next transport.” As luck would have it, there were no more transports before the soon-to-come liberation. She was also fortunate that her supervisor protected her by not reporting that she had fallen asleep during her assigned work. He took pity on her when she confessed she was pregnant and exhausted; he merely requested that she halt munition work when she was too exhausted to work anymore.
During an early April forced march, my grandmother and other inmates, too weak or ill to walk, were left in a basement bunker in the camp. Two of my grandmother’s best friends in the camp shared one loaf of bread between them and left one for my grandmother. These kind and loving friends also survived. They would later reconnect in New York City after the United States welcomed them all.
That Friday, April 13, was a momentous lucky day in our family. My mom was born after my grandmother survived on a diet of bread and watered-down soup. Such a diet of fewer than 1000 calories a day caused many people to starve to death and succumb to disease. But what’s more amazing is that such a lack of food can scarcely be imagined for a woman bearing a child. Yet, miraculously my mom was born at 7 pounds and was a healthy baby. By contrast, my grandmother, after giving birth, was so depleted that she could not even walk. Fortunately, the U.S. Army liberated my family, rescuing them from the camps and caring for my grandmother at the American hospital in Leipzig, Germany.
As a hospital patient, my grandmother amazingly avoided the fate of many concentration camp survivors who died after having eaten foods that their starved bodies could not adjust to given the trauma and starvation they endured for years. She also avoided the fate of concentration camp survivors who, without a home or country to return to, languished in Displacement Persons Camps. Ultimately, my grandmother and mom were brought to Switzerland before they were welcomed by the United States.
My grandmother’s most heartfelt blessing was “May you have Mazal.” She believed Mazal, Yiddish for “luck,” played a starring role in her miraculous survival. For the rest of her life, she remained optimistic and intensely loved life; she thrived into her 102nd year and lived independently until she was past age 99. I believe that, as mentioned above, my grandmother’s positivity was critical to her survival.
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We can all draw important lessons from stories of survival from the Holocaust—lessons of where hate and demonization of others can take us. Today, we face challenges of rising hate, increasing tensions around the world, and challenges to our democratic republic as one governed under the rule of law. As you look ahead to a world that presents new dangers and challenges, I encourage you all to ask how you can be your best authentic selves.
I, and my family, are here today because of the compassion of the U.S. in welcoming refugees to enter this great land; because of the bravery and service of your predecessors in uniform who liberated Europe; because of good people, like the Kosiba family, who saw wrong and defied it; and—above all—because of the positivity and resilience of my grandmother.
As we commemorate the Holocaust, we can all remember the bonds of Americans that unite us in a commitment to justice, fairness, and liberty for all. Our national motto speaks to this tradition—e pluribus unum, out of many, one. Thank you for honoring this tradition and serving our nation.