Remarks by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo
ADL "Courage to Care Award"
A Tribute to Giovanni Palatucci
Wednesday, May 18, 2005, The Pierre Hotel, New York City
Posted: May 25, 2005
Thank you for that generous introduction.
Ambassador Vento, Prefect Giovanni DeGennaro, Rabbi Kass; Your Excellency, Archbishop Migliorie; one of the most respected leaders in the American Jewish community, my friend of many years, Abe Foxman, ladies and gentlemen.
I was honored by your invitation and privileged to be able to attend this celebration of righteous conduct and true heroism by a noble individual, Giovanni Palatucci.
This celebration allows us to reflect upon the evil he struggled against and its regrettable persistence in the world around us.
Although he had for some time been overshadowed by the heroism of Oskar Schindler, in recent years Palatucci's extraordinary courage and valor have been recalled with frequency.
Recently, the 40th Anniversary of his death at Dachau was celebrated in a ceremony at Yad Vashem where, in 1990, his name had been added to the list of the "Righteous Among the Nations."
Palatucci was one of the millions of Italians anguished by Benito Mussolini's collaboration with the demonic Adolf Hitler.
And one of the many who responded by doing all he could to resist Nazi brutality.
As a young attorney and Inspector at the Ministry of Public Administration in charge of the Adriatic Seaport of Fiume, in what is today Croatia, he helped save as many as 5,000 Jews from the threat of death in German concentration camps. He did it by destroying and falsifying documents, providing resources and arranging their secret escape.
He also helped hundreds of refugees dodge Germans and Nazi sympathizers in their desperate and precarious attempts to sail to Palestine.
It was a tribute to Palatucci's high intelligence and dogged persistence that he was able to do all that he did for so long without being detected.
Finally, after six years, the Gestapo came for him in September of 1944, and he was tried for treason and sentenced to death. A month later he was sent to Dachau, where he died shortly before his 36th birthday.
Before his arrest, Palatucci was offered refuge in Switzerland by his friend, the Swiss ambassador to Trieste. He refused, but sent his Jewish fiancée instead. After the war, she moved to Israel and freedom. She recently passed away.
Giovanni Palatucci's story has become another simple but powerful example of the redemptive power of a good heart, willing to live the highest form of goodness known to us - willing to sacrifice his own life to save others'.
The closer we examine the details, the more admirable and inspiring the conduct.
Giovanni was well-educated, born to a well-situated family that included theologians and a Catholic Bishop, who later helped him free Jews from Nazi-occupied Northern Italy. Palatucci's decision to allow thousands of Jews to escape was not the isolated, passionate heroism of the battlefield, where a soldier trained to react instinctively to danger and violence does so despite the peril.
It was a thoughtful, careful and extended series of complex, covert acts by a young man who was trained to perform other simpler and safer professional duties.
Day-after-day with the danger perfectly understood and growing daily, he made the choice to fight the evil his decency would not allow him to ignore, even if it would cost him his life.
What was the greater good he envisioned?
Justice? Yes. But, greater than that.
It was a chance to reject - and to the extent that he could, to stifle the horrific reality of the Holocaust.
This evening we have the opportunity not only to be thrilled by the inspiration of Giovanni Palatucci's courageous conduct, but to remind ourselves he was only one of many Italian people who risked their life to help their Jewish brothers and sisters.
It also gives us the chance to perform the painful task of reminding ourselves, and everyone we can reach - of the grotesque dimensions of the Holocaust itself.
That reminder - regrettably - continues to be necessary.
If we wish to make "Never Again" a prophetic reality rather than a pathetic plea, the horrible truth must be told-and-retold, lest the sands of time blow over the traces and invite repetition in a generation to come.
To do that would be to obscure the fundamental morality that saves us from being no more than brutes.
I accepted an assignment from a New York newspaper to try to explain "fundamental morality" to children who are today just beginning to struggle with the complicated, confusing and often troublesome truths they will have to live with.
The task of trying to put the ultimate truths into language simple enough for children without distorting the complexities and mysteries, intrigued me. So I tried.
I wrote to them that God can do anything. He could have delivered that world to us as a finished product, free of pain and confusion… and perfect in all ways.
But, God chose not to, and instead, gave us a world that is a work in progress, changing from moment-to-moment, day-to-day, largely in response to our human efforts.
I tried to explain that this truth is one of the fundamental principles on which was built the entire Judeo-Christian tradition that helped give birth to America and helps sustain our nation to this day.
It began with the Jewish people about five thousand years ago, who described it in two Hebrew principles - tzedakah and tikkun olam.
I explained that tzedakah means that all of us, wherever we're born, whatever our color or accent, are children of one God; brothers and sisters who owe one another respect and dignity.
And, tikkun olam tells us we should find ways to come together in order to repair the universe…to make it better…stronger, safer…sweeter.
I told them we Christians borrowed both principles. We called the first "charity:" the obligation to love one another. And the second we described as the instruction that God made the world but did not finish it, leaving that task to us humans so that we could - side-by-side and working together - collaborate in completing the work of creation making this world as good as it can possible be.
I said they shouldn't worry about how big a difference they can make. Because God knows how grand the world is and how small we are, God is not going to expect any miracles from us.
All God asks is that you do what you can.
If you rise to great power and are able to end a war, or find a cure for cancer… wonderful. But if the best you can do is comfort a single soul in need of simple friendship... well, that's wonderful too.
It's a job you can work at every minute that you live and it's a job that can make your life worth living… no matter what else happens.
That's… "Fundamental morality."
My own grandchildren found most of the letter familiar, because we had discussed it all before.
I've told them more than once about how all my life I had witnessed Jewish people living these principles: helping my own immigrant Mother and Father to survive the Great Depression and to find a way to earn a living that allowed them to give their children the benefit of an education and a good life they had never had themselves.
And how for years, I had watched the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants who have received so abundantly from this miracle called America, giving back even more abundantly - building a stronger, sweeter American community.
For the Jewish people, certainly. But not just for the Jews, for all of us together as Americans. Supporting education, art, music, healthcare, research… even politics!
I told them Jewish-Americans have been part of all the great American movements forward - the movement for workers' rights, women's rights, human rights, for civil liberties, for the right to worship freely.
Whenever their voices and strength were most needed - they were offered. Jewish philanthropies have reached even beyond our own country to Sarajevo, South America, the old Soviet Union, Africa and Switzerland to help people in need.
I told my granddaughters that the Jewish people are one of the best living examples we have of the idea of community - people coming together to share benefits and burdens - for the good of all.
That's how we made thirteen weak and isolated colonies a nation… sharing strengths. It's how we conquered the Depression, won the Second World War, restored Europe and Asia.
And it's how we helped give life to Israel, which is not only the ultimate refuge of the Jewish people, but is also this nation's indispensable ally in trying to preserve the ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the principles of a free democracy.
It has been a great joy to share these truths with our children and their children. But it's been a challenge too.
On one occasion, the eldest of our grandchildren listened to me carefully, and for the most part approvingly. But then, in the middle of the discussion, she asked the question which will occur to of them eventually.
"But Grandpa, if the Jewish people have been such good people for so long, why were so many of them killed in the Holocaust?"
And I was silent. I reached for an answer - or an explanation for why I had no answer.
I tried to change the subject, but she asked again, "Why did they kill them, Grandpa?"
I scanned my recollection for all the vague responses I've thought of or heard of before. "It was a religious thing." "It was a political thing." "It was because Jews have always insisted on being different and some people are frightened by difference."
None of these things sounded persuasive enough to share, so I told her - frustrated by my inability to do any better -- "We don't really know sweetheart. What we do know is the Holocaust was one of the most horrible things that ever happened, and we must never let it happen again. I'll talk to you some more about it dear, when you get a little older."
And when the discussion is over you wonder if you will ever get old enough to learn a better answer.
Then you go over it all again in your mind. You remember how hard it was even to get New York State to face up to the reality of the Holocaust; how they refused to teach it in their schools until you finally signed a law in 1994 that required it.
How you asked yourself then, "Why is so much of the world so ready to pretend this enormous horror never happened?" I know there are many good people, who in many ways - including risking or losing their life in the war - came to the aid of the Jewish people, like Giovanni Palatucci did.
Why does anti-Semitism persist? A disease that seems immune to destruction. Waning, perhaps, but never quite disappearing. Always capable of reasserting its malignant presence.
In terrorist attacks on the streets of Paris, in swastikas smeared on the wall of synagogues on Long Island. Jews accused of being Jews. Jews denied the right to be a people. Jews singled out, vilified, threatened.
And not just by Nazis.
Those who staffed and operated the machinery of genocide were not just black-booted Nazi soldiers or monsters like Eichmann, whose very name still echoes a kind of blasphemy. For every murderer with blood on his hands, there were thousands of others whose day-to-day cooperation made his act possible. Those who had a mouth - but did not speak. Ears - but did not hear. Eyes - but did not see.
God Bless the good people who helped: especially those who weren't Jews… like Giovanni Palatucci.
But why were there so many who failed to help? Was it weakness? Was it ignorance?
Some of us have been asking these questions and my granddaughter's question for half a century, since the end of World War II and the first revelation of the Holocaust.
For a time as a society, we put the memory away - it was simply too terrible to contemplate. It is not that we forgot: for any of us alive then, the impression on our mind created by the great horrors of the time is indelible. Whether we experienced the Holocaust firsthand - God forbid - or learned about the atrocities through radio and newsreels, through the stories of survivors and liberators - no one of my generation is in any danger of ever forgetting it.
But it seems that some distance was required before our society as a whole could face the full truth of what occurred.
In the intervening years, two generations have been born and have grown to adulthood -- and are raising a third generation… like my grandchildren. Not having borne witness to it, those who have come after us can have only a small inkling of what the Holocaust was. And for that reason, ways have to be found to preserve the truth.
All of it. The truth about the pitiless slaughter of millions of human beings. The truth about the valor and dignity of those who survived. And the valor and dignity of the righteous non-Jews who helped them survive.
The ADL is doing that by incorporating the story of Giovanni Palatucci in its reading material for children.
More ways have to be found to teach it as it actually happened, in a vivid, memorable way so that the world does not forget that the words "Holocaust" and "Jews" are inseparable.
To neglect the truth would be a grievous sin against the memory of those who suffered and died - and those who suffered and survived. A sin against a people persecuted across thirty centuries because of the God they worshipped.
And there is another lesson of the Holocaust that we must not allow to fade.
An inspiring lesson, demonstrated magnificently by the heroic souls in the Warsaw Ghetto. In the Minsk Ghetto. In Auschwitz. In Treblinka. In a thousand unrecorded places. We must remind people of the indomitable human spirit that cannot be crushed by tyranny or oppression.
We must help the world remember those Jews and their friends who stood up in history's darkest, most abysmal corners and fought back against hopeless odds.
In the Warsaw Ghetto. In the Minsk Ghetto. In Bialystock. In Kleck. In Treblinka. In Sobibor. The squads of Jewish partisans. The nameless freedom fighters who kept their proud, passionate spirit alive until machines and sheer numbers ground them into the earth.
Fallen, but still uncrushed. Scattered, but not obliterated. The seeds of a new and ancient nation.
We must help the world to remember the shame of the people who might have stepped forward, but did not; and the glory of the people who chose to help because justice was dearer to them than even their own safety.
The story of the Holocaust is unique. It is precious. To everyone. Jew and non-Jew alike. To everyone who cares about the survival of freedom and about the values that make us human.
We bless the memory of Giovanni Palatucci and the other heroes like him, for the inspiration and the instruction they give us in the meaning of tzedakah and charity and tikkun olam - the need to be collaborators in the creation of a better world so that the sacrifice made by all the victims of the Holocaust will renew in us a belief in the promise that Isaiah heard:
"For, behold, I create in Jerusalem a rejoicing, and in Her people, a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people; and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in Her, nor the voice of crying." (Isaiah 65:18-19)
Thank you for having me.