Days of Remembrance, April 18 - April 25
Elie Wiesel, Founding Chair, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
April 22, 2004, The Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.
That catastrophe could have been prevented; and its victims could have been saved. But they weren't.
Today, as we gathered here to commemorate the deportation of Hungarian Jewry, allow me to tell you a tale about one child, a Jewish child, a seven-eight year old girl, with golden hair and blue eyes refleting the warmth and the innocence of her soul. Anyone who saw her play in the sun was overcome by a sense of wonder and happiness.
For years I so wanted to speak about her and couldn't.
She could have been saved… Her life has become nothing but a memory.
Every year, as we prepare ourselves to this somber, solemn and melancholy commemoration ceremony, again and again, some of us are perplexed: how does one remember so many victims of so many murderers who killed them in so many ways, one more brutal than the other? How does one evoke those who were buried alive, living babies thrown into flames?
Indeed, tell me, friends: how many candles must one light for thousands upon thousands of communities, all swept away in a tempest of hate and ashes? How many prayers can one recite on behalf of endless lines of men, women and children, all swallowed up by the black holes of History represented by Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belzec; Chelmno and Sobibor?
What words are there available to us so as to cope with the fear of children and silent tears of grandparents as they walked, together, slowly towards...?
Sixty years ago...
I remember: Six to eight hundred thousand Jews were still living in Hungary, in relative security, confidently waiting for the end of the war. In the eyes of Berlin they were already deadbut they didn't know it.
Strange as it may sound, Hungarian Jews did not feel the evil impact of the Final solution until March 19, 1944, when the German army invaded Hungary. Oh, there were anti-Jewish laws and practices, as in many parts of central and eastern Europe, but death seemed far away. Jews enjoyed freedom of religion, assembly and movement. Synagogues and cultural clubs were open, Jewish schools were flourishing, Zionist activities were conducted quasi openlyin fact, some Jews managed to get certificates and were allowed to go to Palestine. Clearly, it was the largest Jewish community still alive in Occupied Europe. And yes, it could have been saved. Better yet: it alone had the best chances to be spared. But it wasn't.
Never has the SS killing machine functioned with more energy and efficiencytrue, it was helped by the new Fascist government which put at its disposal its enthusiasm and authority. Humiliating measures and brutal decrees followed one another with frightening regularity and speed. Hungarian officers, gendarmes and policemen executed German orders with exceptional rigor. Various confiscations, arrests, yellow stars, uprooting families, ghettos and ultimately transports, destination unknown. In ten weeks, over six hundred thousand Jews from the provinces were shipped off to death-camps. Daily transports of twelve thousand Jews in sealed cattle cars emptied cities and villages. One June day alone registered twenty thousand.
Tragically, the killers knew what they were doing; their victims did not. In fact, we knew nothing of what had happened on the other side… At that time, there were no more Jews left in Poland, Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Norway, and hardly any left in Belgium and Francemore than five million Jews had already been killed, but we in Hungary remained uninformed. In the dark. And cruelly unprepared.
Here and there, in 1941, a lonely fugitive would come back and tell tales of horror of Jews being forced by German soldiers to dig their own mass graves in Galaciabut no one really believed them. Poor messengers: they delivered the message, and life was going on as if nothing happened.
What would have happened had we received warnings from higher circles of authority? This question, and many others live in me and will stay with me until I die. Why weren't we warned? Why haven't Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill broadcast an urgent appeal to us, immediately, saying: Jews in Hungary, do not let the enemy lure you with false promises; do not board the trains; they will carry you to total annihilation!
Why haven't the Allies bombed the railways leading to Birkenau?
I remember: Late May 1944, the Russians were so near my town that, at night, we could hear their guns' thunder. Germany needed every vehicle, every train, every military unit to stop the Red Army. But absolute priority was given the murder of Jews. Four transports left my town during the last part of May 1944, shortly before D-Day. When the train stopped at a small town named Auschwitz, we could never imagine that the name will enter history and move it to remorse and shame.
And now, sixty years later, as I try to tell the tale with fear and trembling, I still fail to understand: why didn't we know? Why did no one inform us? Furthermore, in those times of absolute evil when the human mind invented places where some people came to kill and others to die, where was man's hear and God's face? Why were so many of his children abandoned? Why were the killers more interested in their death than leaders of good and decent people were in their life? Later in the summer, world leadersincluding Roosevelt, the king of Sweden, even the Popedid try to intercede with Horthy to stop the transports; but why so late, when there were no more Jews left to be saved in the provinces?
There were still Jews in Budapest where young killers, members of the infamous Nyilas party, were busy hunting down hundreds and thousands of Jews, murdering them in the street and/or throwing them in the Danube River.
They too could have been saved.
Here and there, courageous men and women tried to do their duty as human beings. Raoul Wallenberg, Charles Lutz, a few others established shelters for the homeless and defenseless Jews. They showed that it was possible to stop the murderer. They deserve our eternal gratitude.
Naturally, America's brave sons and daughters were engaged in a just war fighting Hitler and his accompliceswe shall forever be grateful to them s well. When in France, I often visit American cemeteries in Normandy. While walking among the graves of thousands of young Americans that had left their families and hopes to fight and die for French cities whose names they had never heard before, I am filled with pride, sadness and immense thankfulness.
But for many of the sons and daughters of the Jewish people, their comrades came too late. And if we so wish to remember them it is not due to our desire to inspire hatred. If we so recall their solitude it is to affirm our determination to abolish or at least attenuate the sense of isolation of helpless and hopeless victims by telling them that they are not alone.
But the Jews in Hungary were alone.
And so, friends, sixty years later, as we light candles to disperse what remained of yesterday's and today's darkness, a dangerous darkness that feeds and encourages blind racism, perilous fanaticism and poisonous anti-Semitism, all heinous instincts that beget suicide terrorism against the State of Israel and the people of Israel, the liberated people of Iraq, and the world at large, let us remember those who suffered and perished then, those who fell with weapons in their hands and those who died with prayers on their lips, all those who have no tombs: our heart remains their cemetery.
And that little girl whose light was extinguished and her life reduced to ashesI think of her and my heart is filled with sadness and rage. I will not tell you who she was. Her innocent smile should move heavan and earth but did not.
It hurts too much.
Just her name: Tzipora.
Just remember: She could have been saved; she wasn’t.