|Remarks by Elie Wiesel,
2012 Lyndon Baines Johnson Moral Courage Award Recipient
|Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and worldwide voice of conscience Elie Wiesel received the 2012 Lyndon Baines Johnson Moral Courage Award given by Holocaust Museum Houston on May 7 in honor of his tireless, life-long service to stop hatred around the world. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and he is the author of almost 60 works dealing with Judaism, the Holocaust and the moral responsibility of all people to fight hatred, racism and genocide. Read his acceptance remarks below.
|Acceptance Remarks by Elie Wiesel
"I love surprises. And tonight was a surprise. I didn't expect that. What did I expect? I expected to
be with friends and tell them things that they know. The importance of memory. That not to remember would be a sin. That not to remember would be actually an abdication on the level of culture of civilization. Actually, what it would mean is to accept the possibility, the tragic possibility of Alzheimer's. I have written a novel about it called "The Forgotten," and there I describe a patient who I compare to a book. Every day, you tear a page out and then another and then another. And at the end, there are no more pages, just the cover. That is the worst curse, the darkest – tragic element of creation that one can imagine. That's what I was going actually, I thought, to speak about since you have accepted me tonight and celebrate your own work at the Museum. And all of a sudden, I hear words of such praise that I really wonder, 'Am I really what they think I am?'”
Elie Wiesel receives the award from Honorary Chairs Sue and Lester Smith as Dinner Chairs Danny and Isabel David watch.
- Jewish Herald Voice, May 3, 2012
- Jewish Herald Voice, March 1, 2012
- Culture Map, May 10, 2012
- Houston Chronicle, May 1, 2012
- Houston Chronicle, May 21, 2012
- KUHF-FM, May 7, 2012
"It's not easy, it's not easy to try to believe in moral courage in a world that lacks it. It lacks it because people are afraid, afraid of their own temptations. What is moral courage? Does it mean simply to have the audacity to say no? Absolutely. Just to say no. But isn't that the definition of civilization? Just the ability and conviction that there are limits. You cannot go beyond that limit, that frontier, and still be part of humanity. You must not, you cannot. But whether you believe in God or not – and, of course, when we say to believe in God means to me, to some of you, it's scripture, the Bible where it says 'No, no, don't do that, don't kill, don't steal, don't humiliate,' and the main thing to me, it's not part of the 10 commandments, it is to me a kind of 11th commandment: Thou shalt not stand idly by. I love that commandment. Thou shalt not stand idly by whenever there is an injustice committed against the honor or destiny of a person or a people. Thou shalt not stand idly by. You must speak up. You must defend. You must tell the victims, look, at least you should know that you are not alone, that somebody cares.
"So is that moral courage? Does it mean also to say no to those who have power? Because, after all, if the award is given in Lyndon Johnson's name, it's about moral courage to stand up even to the President.
"I met Lyndon Johnson. I was a journalist for an Israeli paper and covered Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s visit to Washington. It was the first time that an Israeli prime minister actually got a royal – forgive me for the word royal – but a presidential welcome to the White House. He came to meet President Eisenhower, but he came in through the back door. In the beginning, before the discussion began, there was a ceremony. As always, President Johnson and his guest inspected the honorguard, the Marines, the music. I used to see Eshkol every evening after everybody went home. We would talk. I asked the prime minister, 'What was going through your mind when you for the first time as prime minister, inspected the honor guard of the mightiest nation of the world? What was going through your mind?' He said, 'You won't believe me. I saw myself as a child in my little town in the Ukraine, and I was running away from antisemitic hooligans.' He was running away from them to the White House.
"Now, what is it about our duty to be compassionate? Of course, it's easy. Is it respectful? Absolutely. Is it tolerant? I don't like the word tolerance because it's condescending. I would rather use the word respect. It is my duty as a member of the human family to respect those who disagree with me, to respect those who believe in something else, either because they were not born Jewish or because simply they believe in something else, in sociology or politics. Why not? Is that enough?
"Strangely enough, Hitler – Hitler! – came out with a remarkable statement. He said, 'Conscience is a Jewish invention.' Okay, I accept that. Yes, conscience is Jewish and universal. What would we be without conscience? For him, it was of course an insult. It's not.
"I believe, for the Jew that I am, says that conscience is what I must have and listen to. But believe me, I also say that a Christian has the same right and the same duty to say the same thing. What does it really mean? It means I do not define my identity as simply limited to my attitude towards myself. I may claim my place inside what we so often call the human family, through my attitude towards another: it is what I do to you that makes me a better human being. It's not what I do to myself, it is what you think of words that makes me utter commandments that I try to obey, that makes me what I want to be. Have we always obeyed that?
"As a Jew, of course, I confess whatever is Jewish is not only dear to me, uniquely important to me. I say it again, those who are not Jewish have the same right to say what they say with other words, and I must accept them. As a Jew, of course, to me the most important thing today is what should make the Jewish people safer, worthier, especially in Israel. What makes me Jewish is to believe that whatever happened to Jerusalem 2,000 years ago affects me today. As a teacher, as a writer. I began writing 'A Beggar in Jerusalem' in '67 during the Six-Day War.
"I am Jewish because whatever happens to Jewish life anywhere is important to me, but that does not mean that it is at the expense of what I owe to humankind. Therefore, yes, I involved myself in probably every catastrophe, every tragedy, every injustice done to other people, but always not forgetting that it is the Jew in me who does all that. I don't want to attain universality at the expense of my Jewishness. I say that the more Jewish the Jew, the more universal his or her message.
"And now, of course, we come to your work and to your endeavor here in this place. In one of my books I describe an SS officer who is going to kill a young student of Talmud. And he says to him, 'Look, you know what? I'm going actually to spare your life. I'm not going to kill you. And that will be the greatest of your sufferings because now you think that you possess the truth, that you know it, and you will try to share it with as many people as possible, and you will tell the tale, but they won't believe you. They will say ‘he's crazy.’”
"In fact, that tale I described there, when Moishe the Beadle came back from mass murder and began describing how, on the other side of the frontier, the Jews from my town Sighet were made to dig their own graves. He alone, like Job’s messenger, came back and said, 'I alone came to tell the tale.' They didn't believe him. They said, 'He's crazy.' Even I didn't believe him. I liked him and I liked to listen to his stories because I love stories, but I didn't believe him. I simply couldn’t and I remember he left on the last transport; actually, this is almost the anniversary of that last encounter -– and I looked at his face. He knew where we were going. We did not.
"Question: Why didn't we? Hungarian Jews formed then the largest Jewish community still alive in Europe, May 1944, a few weeks before D-Day.
"And, we had actually the possibility of saving our lives thanks to good Christians. We had a maid, Maria. She was with us since I was born. She came to my father in the ghetto and she, the illiterate maid, said to my father, 'Mr. Wiesel, I have a hut in the mountains. I'll take care of you. Come.' But my father didn't know. Had we known that there was a place called Auschwitz, of course we wouldn't have gone. For there were others, too, in my town. It was surrounded by mountains. We could survive, but we didn't know. Why didn't we?
"Oh, I have met many presidents in the White House, including this one. I always ask them, “Why didn't your predecessors do something so that we could at least know? To listen to foreign radio broadcasts. In the ghetto we could listen. It was forbidden, but we listened. If they had simply said, 'Jews in Hungary, don't go to the railway station.' But we didn't know. Why didn't we? So we come back of course then to what some of you even heard from moving – the students. We were abandoned. Forgotten. We had the feeling that nobody cared. On the one hand we knew there was a war going on. Now, we know of the valiant courage of the American Armies.
My wife and I always go to the U.S. military cemetery in Normandy; there are thousands and thousands of military graves with crosses for Christians, with Stars of David for Jews, and what we feel, we cannot have the words for it. We feel proud and sad at the same time. So we know that America was fighting a war, but a war against the killers of Jews was not waged. For Hitler actually had launched a parallel war – the world war and the one against the Jewish people.
So normally, we could have given up. Why still believe in power as a moral commitment to what is right, what is truly human in history, why believe in it? If the most Democratic, most human, most civilized country in the world, America, has not stood up then to the principle of moral courage, how can I still believe in Roosevelt who was to us a father figure.
"In my little town, I didn't know the name David Ben-Gurion, but I did know the name Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We said prayers for him at shul.
"Somebody asked me yesterday – in the plane, there were four young teenagers, marvelously intelligent and beautiful, and even tonight, here, one of your leaders asked me what about God and all that? This is a question that has haunted all my work, because I come from a very religious background: is God in all that? So what could be the answer? I don't have an answer. I can only say maybe. Is it possible that God, as during the time of the floods, was simply fed up with the world and, therefore, let the killer kill?
"What is the Holocaust? Is it an aberration or a premonition? Is it lack of justice in metaphysical terms? I can only tell you – I repeat it everywhere I go – Auschwitz did not come down from the heavens ready-made. It was conceived by people -- man. It was implemented by man, conducted by man and used by human beings against other human beings simply because we were Jewish. So then what can we say about God? I don't know.
"There is a marvelous phrase by a very great poet and writer of the seventh century, who said – in Hebrew, it sounds marvelous – 'If I knew God, I would be God. I am not God, so I cannot know God.' So what, therefore, can I say? I can simply say that I came from a very religious family. Inside Auschwitz, my father and I would get up in the morning. There was one pair of Tefillin that some Jew bought with three or four portions of bread from a Christian who smuggled them in, and we stood in line in the morning before everybody else got up to wear the Tefillin to say the prayer.
"So we did it every day in Auschwitz. So I say, if I did that then why shouldn't I do it now?
From inside faith we are permitted to ask questions. From outside, why the questions? So it is because I have faith and I cling to it, that I may ask – I may wonder where is God in all this. Yes, I do have faith. I discussed it, more than once, with the great late Rebbe of Lubavitch and he understood.
"I refuse to eliminate everything I hold not only dear but essential in my life: my relationship to my father and grandfather, and theirs going back to Rashi. I cannot be the one who breaks that chain. So, yes, I go to shul. I recite the prayers. I try to observe the laws simply for their sake. I don't want to betray them, but that is also my involvement with causes related to humanity so I believe that I owe not only God, but my fellow human beings. Whatever I can do for him or her, I must do. Whether they are only Jews or not, whether they are rich or not, whether they are learned or not, doesn't matter much to me.
"Ultimately, the question is: what is my relationship to the stranger, to the other? God is no stranger to his creation and, therefore, we who are created in his image must not see in another a stranger, either. I am interested in the otherness of the other. I'm interested in anyone who is not me because both of us, or all of us, believe in memory. And, therefore, we are all here together. Memory is what keeps us together tonight. Memory is not about a past alone, it is also about the future.
"So there must be a blessing somewhere, a blessing for all of us to be worthy of our past by remaining close together, believing is what keeps us together. And for all the honors you have given me tonight, all the praise, I also believe in gratitude. We are a people of gratitude. I know I, the Jew in me, knows of no other religious philosophy that insists on the virtue of gratitude with as much fervor and fidelity as ours. We get up in the morning. The first prayer is 'Thank you God for opening my eyes.' We have prayers for everything, rain, storm, bread, wine.... So maybe there is a prayer also for someone who received praise and honors from men and women and students and their teachers who are here.
"My gratitude to them, to you is profound, vigorous and rewarding. Thank you."
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