Remarks delivered at “Hope in Uncertain Times: A Virtual Holocaust Remembrance Program” hosted by the Department of Commerce
Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Andrei Iancu
April 23, 2020
As prepared for delivery
Good morning everyone, and welcome to the Department of Commerce’s 2020 Holocaust Remembrance Program. My name is Andrei Iancu. I serve as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and the Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. It is my distinct honor and privilege to welcome you to today’s special event.
As some of you may remember, the Federal Inter-Agency Holocaust Remembrance Program began at the Department of Education in 1994. For the past 26 years, a Federal inter-agency committee has been putting on live Holocaust remembrance programming in Washington, D.C., and also, in recent years, it has been live-streaming the event to federal employees around the country.
This year’s inter-agency program was scheduled to take place today, where Holocaust survivors Steven Fenves and Lisl Schick were scheduled to share their courageous stories. Regrettably, due to the current pandemic, this year’s inter-agency program was canceled. However, the Commerce Department’s Office of Civil Rights rose to the occasion to present this remembrance program virtually. Special thanks to Tinisha Agramonte for all of her work organizing us.
At all times, including the most trying times, we must not forget. Even in the midst of a global pandemic—on a scale not seen in the last one hundred years—we must not forget. Indeed, it is our moral and civic duty not to forget the Holocaust’s enormous human calamity, no matter what our present circumstances. We cannot afford to forget. Not ever!
And it is especially meaningful to remember now, 75 years to the month since Allied troops liberated the Nazi concentration camps. The horror the prisoners of those camps lived is why, even in the midst of this pandemic, we must remember.
And so, today, it is our humbling privilege to hear from Dr. Fenves, one of the most eloquent witnesses to the Holocaust. His testimony will allow us to remember and better appreciate some of the inhuman—and human—dimensions of the Holocaust, which most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Under any circumstances, remembering the Holocaust is always a difficult task. It is a story of unparalleled loss. At the same time, it is, as Dr. Fenves’ presence here shows, a story of humanity and perseverance in the face of that loss.
Holocaust Remembrance is especially hard this year because grieving, mourning, and remembering are things we are used to doing as a community, together. Our inability to be together in person, therefore, makes a hard process all the harder.
And what we must remember is horrifying indeed. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, many Jewish communities recite a special prayer for: “The souls of the European Jews who were sacrificed during the holocaust. From 1941 to 1945, six million men, women, and children were killed and slaughtered in their homes and in concentration camps. They were gassed, drowned, burned alive, tortured, beaten, and frozen to death by the Nazis and their allies who were trying to exterminate the Jews and to destroy every trace of their existence.”
In Serbia, where Dr. Fenves grew up, the Nazis and their allies murdered about 90% of all Jews. In neighboring Romania, where I was born, 300,000 to 400,000 Jews were murdered—about one half of all the Jews who lived there.
And there were infinite other deprivations of basic rights. For example, Jews could not own radios, they had limited rations, and they had to pay extra taxes. And they lost their jobs, their businesses and their homes. In Romania, the government moved many of the Jews of Bucharest—my parents and grandparents among them—into a ghetto and gave their homes, including the house my grandfather built himself, to loyalists.
Unfortunately, Dr. Fenves, like too many others, lost so much more.
When he was 10 years old, the Axis powers invaded his hometown of Subotica. His family soon lost their business, and, when the Nazis came, they sent Dr. Fenves and his family to Auschwitz-Birkenau—a concentration camp where the Nazis killed more than one million Jews. From there, he was later moved to Buchenwald.
He was finally liberated in 1945, and then, after the hell of the Holocaust, Dr. Fenves found the resolve to build a new life. And like so many survivors, he moved to the United States.
He served in the U.S. Army, went to the University of Illinois on the GI Bill for a B.S., M.S., and ultimately a Ph.D. He then became a professor, and worked for NIST as a guest researcher. He now volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum here in Washington, D.C.
For Dr. Fenves, for me, and for countless others around the world, the United States has always been a beacon of hope.
I think often of the words of Mihail Sebastian, a well-known Romanian-Jewish author. In his journal from 1941, he describes how he and other Jews would join together in secret during the war to listen to FDR’s speeches that they were able to find—from across the world—on their contraband radio. Sebastian writes: “Glued to our radios, we lived in a world which, though so far away, we consider our own.” This is the pull this country has on human imagination. Sight unseen, though so far away, America’s promise of hope and freedom lives in the mind’s eye of all.
To some Americans today, the idea of the United States as a “city upon a hill” may seem quaint and perhaps even antiquated. A thing of the past. But to those like Sebastian, Dr. Fenves, and my family, it was—and still is—anything but. We intuitively recognized what an ailing Frederick Douglass, at the end of his life, had begged his audiences to remember: that America’s mission “was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages.”
It was in part a deep desire to escape that “bondage of the ages,” and in part as the only hope for life, that drove Dr. Fenves and my family to this great country. Out of the horrors and ashes of the Holocaust, out of the persecution of generations throughout the world, we found life, liberty and happiness in this great land.
I am inspired by Dr. Fenves’s story, and the countless stories of all survivors amongst us. I look forward to hearing from him shortly.
But first, it is my pleasure to introduce Wendy Doernberg, who will interview Dr. Fenves. Wendy is a Senior Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist in the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Commerce. Her grandfather, Curt Doernberg, was a Holocaust survivor who later escaped to Atlanta, Georgia, and became an accountant for civil rights organizations. Wendy’s father, Alan Doernberg, has practiced for the past 45 years as a patent attorney registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Wendy, in turn, has worked as an attorney for various federal agencies before joining us here at Commerce.
Thank you all. Wendy, please take it away