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Second gentleman Emhoff visits Auschwitz, part of a push against antisemitism

U.S. second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, lays wreaths honoring Holocaust victims at the former Auschwitz site on Friday in Oswiecim, Poland.
Omar Marques
Getty Images
U.S. second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, lays wreaths honoring Holocaust victims at the former Auschwitz site on Friday in Oswiecim, Poland.

Updated January 27, 2023 at 8:54 AM ET

This International Holocaust Remembrance Day, government officials from various countries gathered at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to remember victims and honor survivors.

Among them, for the first time, was the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff is visiting Krakow, Poland and Berlin this week to promote both Holocaust awareness and the Biden administration's efforts to combat antisemitism.

His trip will include a stop at Oskar Schindler's factory, a Shabbat dinner with a local Jewish community, a meeting with Ukrainian refugees, a roundtable with interfaith leaders and visits to several museums and other historical sites.

And it's more about listening and trading ideas than delivering any specific policies, senior administration officials told reporters on a Wednesday call. Emhoff — whose great grandparents fled persecution from modern-day Poland in the early 19th century — has been at the forefront of the Biden administration's efforts to address growing antisemitism in recent months.

"The visit certainly has a special significance ... for him, for our administration, for American Jews and, frankly, Jews all around the world," an official said. "And it's not lost on us that it's a pretty incredible moment for him to return as an American Jew, as the first second gentleman ... and work on these issues."

Solemn scenes from a day of remembrance

A day after arriving in Krakow, Emhoff headed about 40 miles west to Auschwitz-Birkenau State Memorial to tour the site of the concentration camp, including a gas chamber and crematorium.

Emhoff, wearing a yarmulke, placed a wreath at the reconstructed Death Wall, where guards executed thousands of prisoners between 1941 and 1943.

Emhoff wiped back tears several times, tugging at the wreath's ribbons, which said "from the people of the United States." After touring the ruins of Birkenau, Emhoff placed a stone on the ground, in line with Jewish tradition.

He and Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, joined Holocaust survivors and other officials at a ceremony commemorating the 78th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp.

"As we reflect on history, we know that the bigotry that fueled the Holocaust did not end when the camps were liberated," Emhoff and Lipstadt wrote in a joint op-ed published Friday in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

"Antisemitism may be considered one of the oldest forms of hatred, but its insidious impact and its deep dangers are not relegated to the past."

Emhoff (second right) walks past the main gate of the former Auschwitz Concentration Camp during his tour on Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Omar Marques / Getty Images
Getty Images
Emhoff (second right) walks past the main gate of the former Auschwitz Concentration Camp during his tour on Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Biden administration is concerned about social media's role

Antisemitism is increasingly visible in the U.S. these days, with high-profile figures in entertainment, sports and politics publicly promoting tropes and conspiracy theories, and the number of recorded hateful incidents directed at Jewish people on a steady climb.

Over 85% of Americans believe at least one anti-Jewish trope, according to results of an Anti-Defamation League survey released earlier this month. Twenty percent of Americans believe six or more such tropes, the highest level it has measured in decades.

"Modern technology and the internet, with social media in particular, allows ideas to spread with unprecedented rapidity," a senior administration official said.

The Biden administration is looking to combat rampant antisemitism, including pushing back against Holocaust denial and disinformation. Emhoff's trip is part of those efforts.

In December, Biden created a task force with representatives from more than 20 federal agencies, dedicated to fighting antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bias discrimination.

The group is holding weekly meetings, reviewing actions other countries have taken and working to produce and implement a national strategy, officials said.

Emhoff held a White House roundtable about antisemitism with a dozen leaders from the Jewish community in December, saying it was "just the beginning of this conversation.

"As long as I have this microphone, I am going to speak out against hate, bigotry and lies," Emhoff said at the roundtable.

Since then, he's also met with the House Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Antisemitism and spoken to Jewish students at Arizona State University during a visit to the state.

On Thursday, Biden issued a statement remembering the Holocaust and reminding people of the hate that exists today.

"Across our country, we are seeing swastikas on cars, antisemitic banners on bridges, verbal and physical attacks against Jewish businesses and Jewish Americans – even Holocaust denialism," he said. "It's vile. It goes against everything we value as Americans. And each of us must speak out against this poison."

On the itinerary: meetings and memorials

On Friday night, Emhoff will attend a Shabbat dinner back in Krakow with members of the Jewish community.

Saturday's planned events include a visit to Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory Museum (Schindler famously saved more than 1,200 Polish Jews by employing them in his plant during World War II) , an antisemitism roundtable and a meeting with Ukrainian refugees.

On Sunday, Emhoff will tour Krakow's Jewish Quarter and visit historic sites in the southern town of Gorlice before heading to Berlin.

On Monday, he will participate in a meeting with other antisemitism envoys at the Topography of Terror Museum, and tour both that museum as well as the Museum of Jewish Life. Later, he will meet with German community leaders and government officials at a dinner hosted by the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Amy Gutmann (whose late father escaped Nazi Germany).

Emhoff will wrap up his trip on Tuesday with a roundtable with Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith leaders, then meet with Ukrainian refugees at Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue as well as visit memorials dedicated to victims of Nazi persecution and meet with Holocaust survivors.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.