On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, the world honors the 6 million Jews and millions of others the Nazis and their accomplices murdered.
The day comes at a time of significantly rising antisemitism, dangerous messages of Holocaust denial and distortion and threats to minority groups worldwide.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has shared his reflections as the stepson of a Holocaust survivor. Other relatives of Holocaust survivors working for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development cite their families’ memory as one reason they chose public service.
Here are a few of their stories.
Ambassador Amy Gutmann, U.S. Embassy Berlin
Kurt Gutmann — the father of the current U.S. ambassador to Germany, Dr. Amy Gutmann — was studying metallurgy in Nuremberg, Germany, and living with a Christian family when Adolf Hitler came to power. When he saw members of his host family saluting Hitler Youth members with a Nazi salute, he decided to leave Germany.
He left Germany alone at 23. He eventually organized the escape of his entire family through India to the United States. His brave actions saved his entire family from tragedy.
The ambassador said her father’s legacy inspired her to enter academia and teach students about democracy. He encouraged her to fight all forms of discrimination.
“I think of him often when I meet survivors of the Holocaust, when I visit memorials to those cruelly murdered, but also when I see the work the United States and Germany are doing together to both remember the Holocaust and to prevent such atrocities in the future,” Gutmann said.
Ory Abramowicz, U.S. Embassy Panama City
Ory Abramowicz’s grandparents survived the Holocaust, but many others in their families perished.
His grandfather Theodore “Teo” Abramowicz was born in Poland in 1901 and moved to Paris as a young man. He worked as a tailor, married and raised a son and a daughter.
In July 1942, the family was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Nazis separated Teo and his son from Teo’s wife and daughter. Teo never saw his wife or daughter again. When his son became very sick, the Nazis “selected” the boy one morning for the gas chamber.
Teo was then sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he escaped. He hid in a forest, surviving on tree bark for weeks. A U.S. military regiment eventually found and rescued him. He returned to Paris and eventually led a Holocaust survivors’ association and synagogue and married a fellow survivor.
Ory Abramowicz sought a career in the Foreign Service and honored Teo by giving his own son Teo’s middle name, Dov.
“The memory of the millions murdered in the Holocaust compels me to work each day for a better and more just world,” Abramowicz said.
Daniel Devries, U.S. Embassy Jerusalem
The Devries family left Germany shortly after their family business was attacked on Kristallnacht. They traveled to the Netherlands and lived in a refugee camp while awaiting approval into the United States — approval that never came.
The Nazis soon invaded the Netherlands and converted the site into a concentration camp. Daniel Devries’ great grandfather, Moritz, was caught trading eggs inside the refugee camp. As punishment, the Nazis put Moritz and his wife Ella on a train to Auschwitz. They were murdered inside a gas chamber in 1943.
Daniel’s father, Robert Devries, finally received refugee status in 1946 and reached New York’s Ellis Island at age 24. He knew no one and spoke no English. He moved to Detroit. In a few years he married, raised two sons, worked in an automobile factory and served in the U.S. military during the Korean War.
“I hope that through public service, I can repay part of my family’s debt to the country that enabled us to thrive,” Devries said. “My career allows me to promote the American values that made a new beginning possible for my grandfather and countless others.”
Elizabeth Ramirez, USAID
Elizabeth Ramirez’s paternal grandparents, Eli and Tilly Gewurz, left Frankfurt, Germany, in 1933 after Adolf Hitler became chancellor. The couple believed they had no future in the country but had trouble convincing other relatives to leave.
The couple fled to Spain, encouraging Tilly’s parents to travel as well. They all later sought asylum in the United States. A cousin, Fred Baer, who worked as an attorney in South Bend, Indiana, persuaded the city’s mayor to sponsor Jewish refugees. Baer later served as a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
The family waited four years for visas before arriving in South Bend, where Eli then worked at a clothing store. Ramirez traveled to Germany recently to visit the building where her grandparents lived. She continues to draw inspiration from their story of survival.
“My memory of them and the uprooting they experienced, how brave they were to start over in a new, foreign country, inspired me to seek a career in public service working internationally to address instability and promote peace and tolerance within and among nations,” Ramirez said.
Read other stories from descendants of Holocaust survivors working for the State Department.