Elie Wiesel’s Remarks at the Dedication Ceremonies for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, April 22, 1993
Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, President Herzog, Mrs. Herzog, Mr. Vice President, Mrs. Gore, Excellencies, distinguished members of Congress, Mr. Speaker, fellow survivors and friends, as one who was privileged to have been present at the inception of this noble and singular enterprise, may I say how deeply grateful I am to the American people, to its leadership in Congress and the White House, and to its many benefactors, and to the survivors—especially to the survivors—for helping us further the cause of remembrance. This impressive museum could not have been built without your understanding and generosity, for with the exception of Israel, our country is the only one who has seen fit to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and made it a national imperative to do so.
Mr. President, you have brought change to this city and to this country. Some of the changes you have brought to Washington have been instant. One such notable change is that the average of the age has dropped by some 30 years. It is to that new, young generation that you symbolize, Mr. President, that we now turn this awesome legacy so that you, Mr. President, can implement our vision.
What has been my vision? When President Carter entrusted me with this project in 1978, I was asked about that vision, and I wrote then one sentence. And now my words are here engraved in stone at the entrance to this edifice. And those words are ‘For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.’ For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories.
Now, a museum is a place, I believe, that should bring people together, a place that should not set people apart. People who come from different horizons, who belong to different spheres, who speak different languages—they should feel united in memory. And, if possible at all, with some measure of grace, we should, in a way, be capable of reconciling ourselves with the dead. To bring the living and the dead together in a spirit of reconciliation is part of that vision.
Now, may I tell you a story? Fifty years ago, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, a young Jewish woman read in a Hungarian newspaper a brief account about the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Astonished, dismayed, she wondered aloud, ‘Why,’ she said, ‘are our Jewish brothers doing that? Why are they fighting? Couldn’t they wait quietly’—the word was quietly—until the end of the war?’ Treblinka, Ponar, Bełżec, Chełmno, Birkenau. She had never heard of these places. One year later, together with her entire family, she was already in a cattle car traveling to the black hole in time, the black hole in history, named Auschwitz.
But Mr. President and distinguished guests, these names and others were known to officials in Washington, and London, and Moscow, and Stockholm, and Geneva, and the Vatican. After all, by April 1943, nearly 4 million Jews from surrounding countries had already vanished, had already perished. The Pentagon knew, the State Department knew, the White House knew, most governments knew. Only the victims did not know. Thus the painful, disturbing question—why weren’t Hungarian Jews in 1944—they were then the last remnant of Eastern European Jewry, why were they not even warned of the impending doom? For one year later, in 1944, three weeks before D-Day, that young woman and husband, all of them were already turned into ashes. Jews from everywhere, old and young, beggars and industrialists, sages and madmen, military men, diplomats, professors, students, children—children!—they were all entering the shadow of flames.
An Italian philosopher/theologian, Giordano Bruno said, ‘Light is the shadow of God.’ No, it is not. It is fire that is the shadow of God that fire that consumed a third of my people. Inside the kingdom of night we who were there tried to understand, and we could not. We found ourselves in an unfamiliar world, a creation parallel to God’s, with its own hierarchy, with its own hangmen, its own laws and customs. There were only two categories—those who were there to kill and those who were there to be killed.
In Poland, SS officers used Jewish infants for target practice. The only emotion they ever showed was anger when they missed. In Kiev, an SS officer beheaded two Jewish children in front of their mother, who in her anguish, in prey of some mystical madness, held them to—close to her bosom and began to dance. In Rumania, the Aryan guards hanged Jews on meat hooks and displayed them in butcher shops with signs, ‘Kosher Meat.’
So as you walk through the museum, so magnificently conceived and built by James Freed, and illustrated, in a way, artistically by Raye Farr and her colleagues—as you walk through those exhibits, looking into the eyes of the killers and their victims, ask yourselves how could murderers do what they did and go on living? Why was Berlin encouraged in its belief that it could decree with impunity the humiliation, persecution, extermination of an entire people? Why weren’t the railways leading to Birkenau bombed by Allied bombers? As long as I live I will not understand that. And why was there no public outcry of indignation and outrage?
More questions—there were fighters in every ghetto—Jewish fighters, there were resistance members in every city and every camp. Why weren’t they helped? Help came to every resistance movement from every single occupied country. The only ones who never received any help, not even an encouragement, were the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw ghetto, the Bialice ghetto, the Vilna ghetto. And for me, a man who grew up in a religion, the Jewish religion, a man who his entire life though that God is everywhere, how is it that man’s silence was matched by God’s?
Oh, I don’t believe there are answers. There are no answers. And this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark. If there is a response, it is a response in responsibility.
In one of my tales, as SS officer says to a young yeshiva student, ‘You want to live,’ he said. ‘Some will laugh at you. Others will try to redeem themselves through you. People will refuse to believe you. You will possess the truth, but it will be the truth of a mad man.’
In 1942, a Jew called Yakov Grabovsky escaped from Chełmno. He came to the Rabbi in Grabov and in Yiddish he said to him, ‘Rabbi,’ he said—(in Yiddish)—‘They are killing our people.’ And when the Rabbi looked at him, the Jew said, ‘Rabbi—(in Yiddish)—you think I am crazy. I am not crazy.’
We are not crazy. We are not crazy because we still believe in human beings. We still believe and we still have faith. And, President Herzog, you who came from Israel—and we are so grateful to you for coming—you know that you are part of that belief. It is because of the passion that we have for Israel, we are Jews, and decent people in America, that we have faith in humanity and in America.
We also believe in the absolute necessity to communicate a tale. We know we cannot, we never will explain. My good friends, it is not because I cannot explain that you won’t understand, it is because you won’t understand that I cannot explain. How can one understand that human beings could choose such inhumanity? How can one understand that in spite of everything there was goodness in those times, in individuals? There were good people even in occupied countries, and there was kindness and tenderness and love inside the camps among the victims.
What have we learned? We have learned some lessons, minor lessons, perhaps, that we are all responsible, and indifference is a sin and a punishment. And we have learned that when people suffer we cannot remain indifferent.
And, Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since for what I have seen. As a Jew I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything must be done.
This is a lesson. There are many other lessons. You will come, you will learn. We shall learn together.
And in closing, Mr. President and distinguished guests, just one more remark. The woman in the Carpathian Mountain of whom I spoke to you, that woman disappeared. She was my mother.