Elie Wiesel speaks about the importance of building the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
“For us, every gesture is an offering, every dawn filled with grace. We watch a child, ours, and we see our parents...”
—Elie Wiesel, Founding Chair, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
November 2, 2003
Fellow survivors, children and grandchildren of survivors, Excellencies, Chairman Zeidman, Vice-Chairman Mandel, Director Bloomfield, Ben Meed, members of the Council, Senators, Congressmen, Friends:
This is a great day and its greatness is meaningful to you, survivors, for it symbolizes our victory over forgetfulness, thus saving the victims from a second death. The Museum owes you much. Look at it and be proud.
Granted, your role in its existence is not unique. Others have taken part in it. From the very beginning, when the idea of the project has hardly been formulated, we received from both the White House and Congress their enthusiastic support. Men and women from all social spheres and religious or secular affiliations, rabbis and priests, businessmen and scholars, rich and poor, young and old, united by an extraordinary passion for truth and compassion, joined their talents and fortunes, inspiring America to comprehend the weight of memory on our collective aspirations. I salute my predecessors on the Presidentially appointed Council. They worked hard. Nothing could stop them. And nothing did.
We salute the administration of the Museum with its staff of professionals and volunteers, whose devotion brought nobility into a world often known for its icy winds of complacency and careerism.
Rarely has a lofty dream attracted so many just persons, galvanizing so many groups, and attaining such a popular success in such short time. Remember the rainy morning of the inauguration? Only ten years have passed since then. When we see the outcome, we are filled with gratitude. No one is as open to gratitude as we are. For us, every gesture is an offering, every dawn filled with grace. We watch a child, ours, and we see our parents. And we would give that child all that was taken away from us.
However, in the spirit of the stock-taking solemnity of the occasion, we recall, not without melancholy, the early days of your arrival in this blessed land. You were received without fanfare and ceremonies. No festive dinners were offered in your honor. No speeches, no presents. As if society had told you: You are alive, that ought to be sufficient.
Not long ago, when liberated prisoners or hostages returned home, they were celebrated by the entire nation. And that was and is the right thing to do. But that was not done when traumatized survivors from Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bełżec, Majdanek and Ponàr finally landed on these shores. Of course, you obtained sympathy and compassion from various quarters; many good people assisted you in rebuilding your lives and your hopes on the ruins of a shattered past. But most of the time you evolved in a closed circle inhabited by your former comrades: invisible walls separated survivors from the rest of the nations.
In the beginning, you so wanted to share your memories from others. But they refused to listen. “Do not look backwards, people told you. It is unhealthy. Turn the page; the future is waiting for you.” Then, you stopped trying, you would just whisper: “What’s the use? Anyway, you won’t understand.”
Do people understand now? Now, at least, they realize that this is the place—together with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem—where one can come close not to the Event itself, that is impossible, but to its dark and fiery gates.
Much before the Museum was built, I was asked what my hopes had been for its impact. “Anyone entering it, I said, should not leave it unchanged.” Here children and adults learn that Good and Evil are part of the human condition, and they can be infinite. Here we learn that the loneliness of victims, their sense of abandonment, their silent despair as they walked, in nocturnal procession towards the flames, are not to be forgotten; they must leave a trace, a burning scar on man’s history, on its memory, and God’s as well.
Surrounded by your children and grandchildren, fellow survivors, do you feel joy in your hearts? If so, it is not void of sadness; it cannot be. And yet, and yet. Close your eyes and see the invisible faces of those we have left behind, or have left us behind as witnesses.
Our presence here today is our answer to their silent question: we have kept our promise.
We have not forgotten.