WASHINGTON (AFP-EJP)---US President Barack Obama said Monday he would posthumously award former Polish Underground officer Jan Karski with America's highest civilian honor for his role in exposing the Nazi Holocaust.
Karski, who died in Washington aged 86 in 2000, provided some of the first eye witness accounts of the purge against Jews to the outside world from the Warsaw ghetto and a Nazi transit camp.
"We must tell our children about how this evil was allowed to happen: because so many people succumbed to their darkest instincts, because so many others stood silent," Obama said at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in honor of the annual commemoration of the Shoah.
The president invoked the call of “never again” used on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Karski will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony at the White House later this year.
As a young man, Karski, who was a clandestine officer of the Polish government-in-exile in London, witnessed scenes of starvation and death after infiltrating the Warsaw Ghetto.
Dressed as a Ukrainian guard, he also went to a Nazi transit camp near Warsaw where he saw Jews beaten and stabbed and loaded onto train cars treated with quicklime for transit to the gas chambers.
He later transmitted warnings about the extent of the Holocaust to British and American leaders including US president Franklin Roosevelt.
After the war, Karski did not return to Poland, but studied at Georgetown University in Washington, where he later became a professor of history.
In his speech at the Holocaust Memorial, Obama also pledged to confront human atrocities across the globe in countries like Syria and Iran.
He announced that his administration’s new Atrocities Prevention Board was meeting for the first time Monday and unveiled a new executive order that authorizes additional sanctions against Damascus, Tehran and their supporters who use technology, such as cell phone monitoring, to commit serious human rights abuses.
"These technologies should be in place to empower citizens, not to repress them," Obama said in a solemn, 25-minute address to a crowd of 400 that included survivors, activists and diplomats.
"And it’s one more step that we can take toward the day that we know will come — the end of the Assad regime that has brutalized the Syrian people — and allow the Syrian people to chart their own destiny."
"Never again’ is a challenge to defend the fundamental right of free people and free nations to exist in peace and security – and that includes the State of Israel," said Obama. "I will always be there for Israel."
He continued, "When faced with a regime that threatens global security and denies the Holocaust and threatens to destroy Israel, the United States will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."
Elie Wiesel: 'The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented'
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who introduced the president, wondered aloud if the world has learned lessons from the Holocaust as the regimes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue.
"The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939,’40,’41,’42," he said. "Have we learned anything? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is that the Holocaust’s No. 1 denier, Ahmadinejad, is still the president, he who threatens to use nuclear weapons ... to destroy the Jewish state?"
Like Obama, he encouraged initiatives to prevent further atrocities.
"Preventive measures are important," Wiesel said. "We must use those measures to prevent another catastrophe."
Obama and Wiesel traveled together in 2009 to Germany’s Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Wiesel survived Buchenwald but his father died there.
"'Never again’ is a challenge to reject hatred in all of its forms, including anti-Semitism, which has no place in the civilized world," Obama said.