Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
December 2, 2021
Good morning. Thank you so much, Jack, for that introduction and for hosting this remarkable event and for inviting me to share in this honor. And, Michael, thank you so much for the extraordinary, historical perspective you just shared with me and all of us in the audience, but particularly with the young people who are here in this room. It is such a privilege for me to be here today. I’m particularly honored by the presence of the survivors, and descendants and representatives of survivors who are here in this room. Your legacy, your courage, your insistence in telling your stories move me beyond words.
We are so fortunate to have you here with us, as holocaust survivors are becoming more and more rare around the world. That is, in part, the great value of museums like this one. It can tell survivor stories even in their absence, and make real what happened there, and ensure one important lesson we should all learn, and that is we should never ever forget.
Every museum has its own way of doing that. Here at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, during a visit earlier this year, my heart broke wide open when I saw children’s shoes from a concentration camp – gray and tattered, with little socks rolled up inside. They unlocked something inside me, and they evoked the real children who had worn them.
When I was at Yad Vashem during my visit to Israel just a few weeks ago, a different display struck me. There was an exhibit that showed what people who arrived at concentration camps had in their pockets. Simple items of daily life — watches, wedding rings, family photos. Think of what you have in your pockets today that might share with whomever should find your remains might share about you. Today, I have a handkerchief in my pocket that I grabbed from one of my staff as we were getting out of the car because I have a tendency to cry at these kinds of events and they want to make sure I don’t have tears rolling down my eyes and no Kleenex to wipe me eyes. And, I wonder, if someone were to find my remains, if they would know why I am carrying this handkerchief in my pocket. We are all moved by different exhibits, different ways of telling the stories of the holocaust. For me, personally, the story of this tree is one of the most powerful I have ever come across.
Often in my work I hear about “hopeless” places, places of widespread suffering and darkness, places where hope – supposedly – goes to die. It would be hard pressed to think of a place more potentially apt for that terrible moniker than Terezin. And yet, we have before us today proof that hope did not die there. That a teacher – in the most dire circumstances – smuggled in a lesson. That students took their meager water rations and put aside some of it for that tree. That even though most of the children were deported and perished in Aushwitz, hope lived on through their efforts. This tree shows us that even in places where hope supposedly goes to die, human spirit endures.
After all, what is more hopeful – more optimistic – than planting a sapling? It is an act of pure generosity to water, protect, and care for a sapling whose leaves you may never sit under. We do not plant saplings for ourselves, as you heard from Michael. We plant them for the next generation. Or, in the words of the sign survivors placed in the base of the tree after liberation: “As the branches of this tree, so the branches of our people.”
I know the Jewish people will continue to branch out, just as the saplings from that original tree in Terezin thrive all over the world today. And you will have one here that will be your reminder. And I know that the students of PS/IS 276 will take good care of this symbol of hope – which will, in turn, move and inspire generations of children to come. And I urge you to appreciate the opportunity that you are experiencing here today, and you will experience for the rest of your lives because you have had the opportunity to take care of this sapling.
Thank you very much.