Elie Wiesel, Founding Chair, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
April 30, 2003, The Capitol Rotunda, Washington, DC
From Isaiah, chapter 21: Shomer, ma milail? Watchman, what of the night? This ancient call of the prophet of chastisement and consolation reverberates in our memory today as we remember the men and women, young and old, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, secular and pious, dreamers of sacred blessings and seekers of hidden redemption, who were sentenced to suffer unparalleled agony and solitude in ghettos and death-camps not for what they have done or possessed or believed in but for what they were, sons and daughters of a people whose memory of persecution was the oldest in recorded history.
All the rivers run to the sea, days come and go, generations vanish, others are born, remembrance ceremonies follow one another—and hatred is still alive, and some of us, the remnant of the remnant, wonder with the poet Paul Celan: who will bear witness for the witness, who will remember what some of us tried to relate about a time of fear and darkness when so many, too many victims felt abandoned, forgotten, unworthy of compassion and solidarity? Who will answer questions whose answers the dead took with them? Who will feel qualified enough and strong enough, faithful enough to confront their fiery legacy?
What was and remains clear to some of us, here and elsewhere, is the knowledge that if we forget them, we too shall be forgotten.
But is remembrance enough? What does one do with the memory of agony and suffering? Memory has its own language, its own texture, its own secret melody, its own archeology and its own limitations: it too can be wounded, stolen and shamed; but it is up to us to rescue it and save it from becoming cheap, banal, and sterile.
Like suffering, like love, memory does not confer special privileges. It all depends what one does with what we receive, for what purpose, in the name of what ideal. If we invoke our right, our obligation to remember a frightened child who, in a ghetto, was assassinated before the eyes of his mother, an old teacher beaten to death in the presence of his disciples, a nocturnal procession walking towards open pits already filled with corpses, a beautiful woman driven insane with grief before being knifed by the killer—if we want to remember, if we want you to remember all those emaciated faces, all those burning eyes, all those muted prayers, it is not only for our sake but also for your children's and theirs.
If it weren't for their memory, much of what has been undertaken and even accomplished would be without relevance—and worse: without meaning.
To remember means to lend an ethical dimension to all endeavors and aspirations. When you, my good friend Secretary Powell, search deep into your heart, you find that most of your diplomatic initiatives and military responses have been rooted in your faith in the mysterious power of History of which memory is made. Isn't that principle the one that keeps on governing all our lives? Wasn't 1938 the main factor in your recent decision-making regarding Iraq? In those years there were two great powers in Europe: France and Great Britain. Had they intervened instead of preaching appeasement, there would have been no world war, no Auschwitz.
Watchman, what of the night?
Is memory the only answer to the Tragedy itself? But whatever the answer, memory is its most indispensable element.
An ancient Talmudic legend tells us that when the soul leaves the body to return to heaven, it cries out in great pain; and the outcry is so powerful that it reverberates throughout creation. What about the outcry of six million souls?
Well, among the victims who were killed there was a 12 year old girl, Yunite Vishniatzky, from a small village named Byten near Slutsk. This is her last letter, dated July 31, 1942:
"…Dear Father, I say good-bye to you before dying …We want very much to live … But they won't let us—that's how it goes … I am so afraid of dying: small children are thrown into the grave alive … I say good-bye to you forever … And give you a big kiss … Your Yunita ..."
Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? And the watchman says: the morning comes, and also the night…
So—we remember all the children whose lives bothered the enemy so much he felt the irresistible urge to wipe them out. We remember Yunite Vishniatzky...
When her soul left her frail body, was her cry heard by anyone, anywhere?