Mr. President, Madam Speaker, members of Congress, members of the Council, fellow survivors, liberators, friends:
Mr. President, all of us who attended your inauguration were profoundly moved by, and proud of our nation. I had the feeling that perhaps history was trying to correct an old, shameful, lasting shame done to your community, Mr. President, to all those who were humiliated because of their color. It was history’s best moment.
Can history ever correct the extraordinary, profoundly disturbing injustice done to my people, the Jewish people, and to all the other victims? It could; has it? Will the world ever learn? We thought that if only we could speak, people would change. Not enough.
I just came back from Geneva, where we attended an event that was incredibly offensive. The leader of a nation, an ancient nation, the leader of a people, a good people, who became the number-one Holocaust denier in the world, and he used the solemn setting of a United Nations gathering again to insult the state of Israel in a way that no civilized person should ever do.
Now how is it possible that it happened? Why was he invited? Why was he there? Thank you, Mr. President, for deciding that America should boycott that gathering.
A personal memory: Sixty-five years ago, a few days after Passover, in my little town, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, it all began. It all began with certain decrees. Hungarian gendarmes would go from home to home to confiscate whatever we had. We didn’t have much.
I have in my possession, given by a friend from the Museum, Radu Ioanid, a receipt from a lieutenant of the Hungarian army of the things that they had taken from my old grandmother. When I saw it for the first time, my heart broke. My poor, old grandmother. What they had taken was the equivalent of ten dollars—that’s all she had—and very poor candelabras for her Sabbath candle lighting, and they took that. They have robbed her of her poverty, and that’s what they have done going from house to house.
Then came the ghetto, and then came the deportation. It all went very rapidly. The Hungarian Jews were the last large Jewish community to be targeted, the very last. The war almost ended, Germany has lost the war. Ten days later, D-Day, and they came, and you know—cattle cars crisscrossing the nocturnal landscape of Europe. The arrival, the flames at a distance.
At one point, my father looked out the window of the cattle car and he read the name of the station: “Auschwitz.” And we didn’t know what it meant; no one did. My good friends, we, in 1944, didn’t know what it meant. The free world already knew. Washington knew. London knew. Switzerland knew. The Vatican knew. Stockholm knew. The Washington Post knew and The New York Times knew. We didn’t. Had we known, our tragedy would have been curtailed, limited.
We had an old maid, a Christian woman called Maria, illiterate, but her heart was a human heart, and she, even her memory, brings honor to Christianity. She sneaked into the ghetto and she pleaded with my father and our family, “Don’t go! I have a hut in the mountains. I’ll take care of you.” Had we known what Auschwitz meant, we wouldn’t have gone.
Why didn’t we? Why didn’t anyone in the free world bother to warn us? “Jews in Hungary, don’t go to the train!” Will the world ever learn? I think it hasn’t. Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Bosnia and no Darfur, and all racism would have disappeared. Anti-Semitism would have vanished.
How will it learn? I always believed, still do, that if Auschwitz couldn’t cure the world of anti-Semitism, what could and what will? Nevertheless, here we are in a very great institution, and that institution is here simply to teach us how to share memories—not easy. Not easy because even you who work here and even you who enter this place, will never understand.
Maybe it’s because we cannot explain well. But it is not that you don’t understand because we don’t explain. We don’t explain well because you cannot understand. When the war ended and we came out and spoke, the words on our lips were: “You will not understand, you cannot understand. How can a normal human being understand that human beings—after all, they were human beings and some of them were intelligent, well-educated, from great families—how they could turn into killers of children in the presence of their parents, and of parents in the presence of their children? How is it possible? The absurdity of it all! the senselessness of it all!
And maybe the world is paying the price now for its indifference to Jewish pain and suffering then. Among the children, there might have been Nobel laureates who would have discovered the cure for cancer, for all kinds of diseases, who could have sensitized the world and told them, “Look, there are certain things you cannot do and remain human.” Will the world ever learn? And yet, learn we must.
Mr. President, I am going to tell you something which is rare because it’s so personal. Exactly 30 years ago, we were here. I see my friend Senator Lieberman, he was here then. Many of us were here. But many of us who were there then are no longer here. Our community is decreasing its numbers almost daily. We are old, getting I hope older and older, but nevertheless, there are more funerals, and more and more are taking place.
So we were here 30 years ago for the first time at such a ceremony, which is so solemn, so moving. Again and again, I see the soldiers coming in and it moves me to tears because I remember when they liberated Buchenwald. Since then, I have a feeling of tremendous gratitude to the American flag, to the American uniform, to the American soldier.
Thirty years later, I can tell you at my age, what I really believe as my personal “I believe,” or my credo, having learned all that, having gone through all that. I say that I belong to a traumatized generation that often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that one must not estrange oneself from either God or man.
Was it yesterday or eternities ago, that some of us have realized that human beings are capable of unspeakable brutality, that for killers it was human to be inhuman? Are we, therefore, to give up on humanity? Was it the men that we are? The human beings that we are? Were we God’s victims or God’s failure? Are we God’s prisoners? Are we God’s orphans?
I believe that, every day, it is incumbent upon us to choose anew between deadly warfare among adults and the right of children to grow up without fear, with a smile on their face; between ugly hatred and the nobility of opposing it; between inflicting pain and humiliation and inventing a beginning of solidarity and hope.
Not to choose is also a choice, said Albert Camus, the wrong choice. I know and I speak from experience, that even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to create light and share warmth with one another; that even on the edge of the abyss, it is possible to dream exalted dreams of compassion; that it is possible to be free and strengthen the ideals of freedom, even within prison walls; that even in exile, friendship becomes an anchor.
I still believe that one minute before one dies, there may be hope in his or her heart—one minute before one dies, he or she is still immortal. In the final analysis, I believe in man in spite of men. I still believe in his or her future in spite of what human beings have done to the principle of human dignity and human life.
I believe in language, although it has been distorted, corrupted, and poisoned by the enemy. I still cling to words, for it is we who decide whether they become spears or balm, carriers of bigotry or vehicles of understanding, whether they are used to curse or to heal, whether they are here to cause shame or to give comfort.
I believe that ultimately it is we who decide whether words are to be turned into poisonous adders or into peace offerings. I belong to a generation that has learned that whatever the question, despair is not an answer; whatever the experience, indifference is not an option.
My friends, I’ll conclude with an episode somewhere in those times, in those places. An SS officer speaks to his victim, a young student, and says, “You want to live, and maybe you will survive and one day, you will regret it. You will speak, but your words will fall on deaf ears. Some will laugh at you; others will try to redeem themselves through you.
“You will try to reveal but you remain hidden. You will try to incite people to learn from the past and rebel, but they will refuse to believe you. They will not listen to you. In the end, you will curse me for having spared you. You will curse me because you will be in the possession of truth. You already are, but it is the truth of a madman.”
But then, why the Museum? Why write memories? Why share experiences? For the dead, it is too late. We do all that because it is not too late for our children. For all children, it’s never too late.
This is the second half of Mr. Wiesel's speech. Read more information about Elie Wiesel.