Remarks by Elie Wiesel, Yom Hashoah rally organized by
UN Watch and the Geneva Yom Hashoah Committee
Place des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 20 April 2009
A story. Somewhere in Europe, during that time, one of the killers addressed his young victim, saying: “You want to live and perhaps you will live. But one day, you will regret it. You will speak, but your words will fall on deaf ears. Some will make fun of you. Others will try to redeem themselves through you. You will call it a scandal, cry for revolt, but people will refuse to believe or listen to you. You will curse me for having spared you. You will curse me because you will have knowledge of the truth. You already do. But it is the truth of a madman.”
This story illustrates the fear and anguish of a survivor. How does one bear witness? Where does one find the words to say what we nowadays call the “unspeakable”? Whom must one remember first? The children? The elderly? The sick? Mothers who watched their children die? Older people who moved toward the flames with prayers on their lips? Which of these? Is it necessary to delve deeper and even ask how it was possible?
After all, we are talking about an event of cosmic dimensions. Everything had been programmed since the beginning, the first laws, the decrees, the various measures taken. The psychologists had to invent the means to deceive the victims, the architects to construct the barracks and gas chambers, the intellectuals to justify what had been undertaken, meaning to annihilate a people, the only people from antiquity to have survived antiquity.
Just how was it possible for all this to happen in a civilized world, in the heart of Christian Europe, to take families, communities, to condemn them to death and then invent a kind of science: how to annihilate them most quickly?
How is it possible that in 1944 the Hungarian Jews, who could have been saved, were not saved?
It began in our town three days after Passover. First, a way to build the ghetto – but we did not know its consequences yet. Eichmann had already arrived in Budapest at the head of a small commando unit of 200 people, which included the cooks, drivers, and secretaries. With 200 people, and the help of the Hungarian army, he had succeeded in deporting 500,000 to 600,000 men, women and children. Thus by Shavuot, seven weeks later, six weeks later, we were already in Auschwitz.
In our town there was a woman who worked in our home, an elder illiterate Christian, but she brought honor to Christianity. She came to the ghetto to bring us fruit and other food. On the eve of the evacuations, she had come to our home, I remember, and she begged and cried while telling my father to accompany her to the mountains, where she had a small house, and she was saying: “All of you come with me – I will take care of you!”
And my father said, quoting in front of us all, “Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur,” we must not be separated from the community, this is a Jewish principle. What happens to all will happen to us.
So it happened, there were the train wagons, the clubs beating us. And the journey toward the unknown. You know by now how it was carried out.
Upon arrival three days later, the train stops at a station. My father looks out a small opening and reads the station’s name: Auschwitz. And he did not know what it meant, nor did we.
But here in Geneva, it was already known. At the Vatican, it was already known. In Washington, it was already known. In London, it was already known. In Stockholm, it was already known. But we, the victims, we did not know.
I tell you that had we known, most of my community would have survived, because the good Christian woman was not alone. There were other Christians in our town who would have accepted to house and thus save families. But we did not know.
Explain to me how this was possible? How is it that no one in the world had sent emissaries? The radio broadcasts, Roosevelt, de Gaulle in France, from London: no warning to us. It was two weeks – not even – ten days before the Normandy landing. Ten days! The war was finished. But we did not know.
How is it that the Allies did not bomb the railroad tracks leading to Birkenau? I have known five United States presidents and I posed this question to each in the Oval Office: “Explain to me why the Allies did not bomb the railways – and I’m not talking about the camps, because some said that they did not want to kill the victims, the prisoners – but the railways? During that time, 10,000 people per day vanished in the ovens. Who can explain this to me? I just do not understand.”
In fact, speaking about that period, there are so many things which I do not understand. I do not understand, so I write, but I am an educator. How was it possible that the leaders or the commanders of certain death squads, the Einzatskommandos had graduated with university diplomas from the most prestigious German universities, that some officers were aristocrats, some held doctoral degrees in medicine, philosophy, theology, and these men gunned down children and their parents day after day. Thus culture did not help.
I who believe that education is a shield which protects humans against some acts that a cultivated human being is not able, would not be able to commit. But no, it was useless – how was it possible?
Now we know how it happened. Everything, we already know it. Thanks to historians, museums, archives, we know the how. But what we do not know is the why. Why it happened. What was the use of it all?
Of course the only answer to this could be given by God alone. In all humility and sincerity, I tell you that this answer, if it exists, is one that I challenge. There is no answer. One must live with the question. But this question extends beyond time. Will the world ever learn? Will it finally learn what it means to allow men to wipe out other men, without reason?
I actually think that people and the world have not learned. If the world had learned, there would have been no Cambodia, there would have been no Bosnia, there would have been no Rwanda, there would have been no Darfur, there would have been no racism, no anti-Semitism.
In 1945, on the ruins of Europe, on the ruins of theologies and philosophies, on the ruins of all societies and all ideals that existed before, there was nonetheless a kind of hope that surfaced in us. Yes, all of a sudden, we had become optimists because, paradoxically, we were convinced that the world had learned something. That never again will children die of hunger. That never again will there be wars, because we know how wars turn out. That never again will hate prevail. That never again will Jews, nor other minorities be persecuted.
If someone had told us then that in my lifetime, with the friends that I have here, we will spend our lives combating anti-Semitism, I never would have believed it. I was convinced that anti-Semitism died in Auschwitz.
Now we know: the victims are dead. Anti-Semitism is still alive.
And this is how we end up with a pessimistic conclusion. If Auschwitz did not succeed in curing the world of the ancient evil that is anti-Semitism, what can cure it? And what will cure it?
If someone had told me one day, say last year, not even two years ago, that I would be here in Geneva opposite a head of state, a president of an ancient people and great country, and that he would say things so insolent, so offensive, so vulgar, so ugly about our people in public and with pride, never would I have believed it.
Indeed he did come, I was there. He was welcomed with applause and what he said simply relayed essentially the idiotic, stupid accusations of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The same thing.
So what must be done? In this case, what good is it to bear witness? What good is it to claim suffering that is not ours, except in memory?
The answer is of course very simple. In spite of it all, we must cling to this faith, to this memory, to this existence that preceded ours, to this quest that remains ours: a quest for truth, a quest for justice, a quest for brotherhood, a quest for love, a quest for friendship.
Because I actually would have all the reasons in the world to say, “Listen, ladies and gentlemen, I paid my dues and now leave me alone! Now I want to eat bread, drink wine, go to the movies, and fall in love with beautiful women. It’s over, and now I have every right to pure and simple happiness, and whatever you do, don’t speak to me about the suffering of others!”
Well to that, I say no. Despite the fact that our suffering was unprecedented. Because of that, we must be sensitized to all the suffering in the world. And of course, first and foremost, “Aniyei Ircha Kodmim,” this is normal. We cannot turn away from what is happening in the world immediately surrounding us. Otherwise, I could just as well say: what good is it to write when I have seen that those who have written, among those who have read, were indifferent to victims or in collusion with killers, so what good is it? What’s the use? What good is it to have children?
It happened long ago in our history. The Talmud tells us that in times of great persecution, there were Pharisees called “Perushim” who separated from their wives so as not to have children. We also had the right to say it.
And yet, do you know that even in the ghettos there were romance novels, there were people who became engaged, who married, who had children in the ghetto, and even on the eve of departure, they were getting married?
After the war, in the Displaced Persons Camps, the first thing people did was get married and have children. Didn’t they know what it meant? That the world was dangerous for Jews. To have Jewish children in this world that wanted nothing to do with them.
But no, it wasn’t that. We have learned from our history that even in darkness, there is song and there is prayer and even when suffering becomes intolerable, there is a rising of the soul above and beyond.
We have learned that when it is a question of justifying who we are, it is not out of despair that we do it. As Camus said, when there is no hope, it must be invented. And we will say: it is because there was no hope that we invented it.
But this hope endures. So I come back to this story from the beginning where the killer, the tormentor says, “So look, really, you will be taken for a madman. You are going to tell the truth, but people will say it is the truth of someone mad.”
And then you will reply, I will reply: why is it we remember? Let’s be honest with ourselves: for the dead it is too late. But it is not too late for our children. And we are here this afternoon for all our children and theirs.
Translated from the French by Jamie Moore