Susan Benda holds a photo of her parents, Harry and Eva Benda, standing outside the White House in 1952. (State Dept./DA Peterson)
On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the world pauses to remember the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust and the millions more who were persecuted and killed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Most importantly, we honor survivors, whose personal experiences continue to inspire.
Ellen Germain, the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, said, “International Holocaust Remembrance Day forces us to reflect on the magnitude of the Holocaust and its lesson on what can happen to a society when hatred goes unchecked”.
Descendants of Holocaust survivors who currently work for the US State Department said stories about family members who escaped death shaped their lives and career choices.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, son-in-law of a Holocaust survivor, said, “His father-in-law’s story made a deep impression on me. It taught me that large-scale evil can and does happen in our world – and that we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to stop it.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorates the day the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in Poland was liberated in 1945. Here are the stories of three descendants of Holocaust survivors whose stories relatives influenced their decision to choose a career in international affairs and diplomacy.
Mark Mishkin, United States Embassy, Panama
Mark Mishkin’s grandfather, Samuel Goldberg, survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Issues of the Holocaust are for me more than a vague question of human rights; they are deeply personal,” said Mishkin, a foreign service officer.
He said his grandfather remembered seeing fireplaces in Auschwitz working all night. He later discovered that all the Roma in the camp had been killed and burned that night.
“He looked up at God and asked, ‘All these people have committed the same ‘crime’ that they should be burned?'” Mishkin said. The “crime”, according to the Nazis, was to be Roma.
Mishkin said his grandparents’ experience and love for the United States motivated him to work for the State Department. “My deep appreciation for all that America has done for my family drives me every day to do my best.”
Jonathan Shrier, US Embassy, Israel
Jonathan Shrier is a scion of a family rescued by diplomats during the Holocaust. His father, grandparents and great-grandmother escaped from Poland to the United States with the help of diplomats from several countries. Shrier’s grandfather had a friend at the Swedish Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania, who directed them to Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara and Dutch Honorary Consul Jan Zwartendijk in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Sugihara and Zwartendijk issued the “lifetime visas” which allowed the family to travel across the Trans-Siberian Railway (protected by Swedish safe-conduct papers) and then to Yokahama, Japan. Shrier’s family boarded one of the last ships in Japan with Holocaust refugees heading to the United States.
When the United States denied the Shriers entry because refugee quotas were exceeded, the family traveled to Mexico City. His family was only able to stay there because his grandfather was a commercial attaché at the embassy of the Polish government in exile. Years later, the family was granted permission to enter the United States.
“Their courage and ingenuity as Holocaust survivors influenced me deeply and helped shape my decision to become an American diplomat,” said Shrier, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. .
Susan R. Benda, Washington
Both of Susan R. Benda’s parents were Holocaust survivors from the former Czechoslovakia. Benda’s mother survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. His father fled to Asia, where he was imprisoned by the Japanese before eventually making it to the United States. His parents were murdered in the Chelmno extermination camp in Poland.
“When I was young, my parents never talked about their past,” said Benda, who is a State Department attorney. “I knew that we were Jewish, that they had accents and that we had no parents.”
Benda’s mother spoke publicly about her experience as a Holocaust survivor for the first time when she was interviewed in 1979 for a Yale University oral history project. Her father had been a history professor at Yale; he died in 1971.
As a State Department employee for more than 20 years, Benda has achieved her goal of standing up for justice. His brother also worked at the department. In their roles, she said, they help ensure that their parents’ new country, which they loved, “resists the voices of hatred, division and oppression and delivers on its promise.” as a beacon of democracy and justice in the world”.