The following are excerpts of a speech that Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel gave last week at the Holland and Knight Charitable Foundation’s Holocaust Remembrance Project dinner at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington:
Why remember? … Why should we give our memories to young people and place such a burden of sadness on their frail or not so frail shoulders? … What we want to give is reasons to be joyous. “Have fun,” as you say in America. I don’t like that expression. There are two expressions I don’t like in America. One is: “Have fun.” The other one is: “Relax.” It doesn’t go with my moral philosophy. Don’t relax. …
On one hand, we know to speak about [the Holocaust] is impossible, but to be silent is forbidden. If it were simply a matter of communicating a lesson or tale of suffering, that wouldn’t do it. … Morbidity is wrong. Sadness is sometimes important and necessary, but don’t turn it into a morbid expression. Morbidity is depression. Depression if it lasts cannot produce beauty, neither in words or in deeds. A depressed person is alone. Loneliness is what can bring us to end life. …
Why do we remember the suffering? For the victim? The cruelty of the killer? The indifference of a world that stood by? A world that stood by. …
I know there was a world war going on and what America has done, leading the world to fight fascism, Nazism, organized cruelty. … I go to the military cemetery, there are thousands and thousands of graves of America’s soldiers, young people, most of them crosses, some of them Stars of David, name and age, 18-year-old kids, 19-year-old kids, who came from villages whose names I love, and they came to liberate villages whose names they didn’t know. They came to give their lives … but when it came to save the Jews, it was a different story.
Somehow, our leaders, who were so generous and courageous, didn’t want to hear the outcries, the tears, the prayers, the lamentations of the victims of the Jewish. … I have never failed to ask the president, whoever it was, Carter, Reagan, George Bush the father, Clinton and this president: Why didn’t the Allies bomb, not Auschwitz, … [but] the railways going to Auschwitz?
The generals say they would have repaired [the railways]. Come on; it would have taken a day, two or three to repair the railways. … At that time, 10,000 to 12,000 men, women and children were killed every single day. …
It was supposed to begin with the Jews. It didn’t end with the Jews. It was so beyond what other human beings conceived of the possibility of other human beings doing to other human beings. … What is the alternative? Not to tell the story? To let truth vanish? To let truth disappear together with the victims?
We cannot abandon them. We shouldn’t. It’s not for their sake. It’s for ours. How could we live with ourselves if we abandoned those who have been abandoned?
What is the mission, so to speak? It should be invoked. … As a teacher and as a writer, what I want with my work, … I want to sensitize. I want to sensitize the student so when the student reads, let’s say “Romeo and Juliet,” they should know that this is not, contrary to what everyone believes, a story about love. It’s a story about hatred. And because of hatred, two young people died. The parents hated one another, and the children died. Adults make war, and children die.
Whether it be Jeremiah or Job or Cicero or Plato, they should know that a prophet who spoke, he spoke for injustice. … There is no option. Injustice cannot, must not prevail. So the prophet in his or her words — there are women prophetesses too — had to speak.
Go to the king and say: “You are wrong.” What about the prophet? No one would like him. There was not an ID that said: “Profession: Prophet.” It was simply because he or she had the words, and the language was so powerful. And the ideas that the language carried that communicated was of such strength that people had to listen, and the king had to listen. The king jailed the prophet Jeremiah, but he had to speak. So why do we study Jeremiah? Why do we study Shakespeare? To sensitize the student. This is why we remember: to sensitize. [The Holocaust] is a Jewish tragedy with universal implications. … Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims. We must remember. … I do believe that the memory of those times can serve as a shield, to protect us from accepting cruelty as a system.
If we tell the story, it is because we believe once you read or hear the story, especially from someone who says, “I was there,” you become that person’s messenger, that person’s witness. As such, you must speak up, whenever you witness injustice, whenever you know that some people are suffering, whenever you know that some people die.
We know that you will speak up and nobody will listen. Too bad. You are not responsible for those who don’t listen, but you are responsible for those who speak, and you are one of those who speak. The word then is “responsibility.”
There is response in responsibility. We are responsible for one another. … We should do whatever we can to help those victims in Darfur. … There are so many catastrophes, so many injustices. Choose one cause, any cause in the world, and from that cause you will go to another and to another and to another, and your life will become richer.
What’s happening in the Middle East. … I cannot tell you the anguish I have had. … Never, never has a situation between Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians been so removed from any possibility of peace as now. … What is the problem? There are two terrorist organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah. Terrorism, I believe, is the scourge of the 21st century. … What can we do? I must tell you that I am close to tears. … I know one thing: We are forbidden to give up hope. … Without hope, there is no love. Love one another. … Without love, there is no future. … This is my gift for you: hope.