Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel (b. 1928). survivor of Auschwitz, author of numerous books and articles on the Holocaust and Jewish culture, human rights activist, and the 1986 Nobel Peace laureate, has also stressed the need for remembrance. In November 1987, Wiesel spoke at a conference center built inside the shell of the destroyed Reichstag, the German parliament during the Nazi era. The following is a journalistic report of his speech.



Elie Wiesel . . . delivered this speech from the rostrum of the Reichstag building in West Berlin. . . . The occasion was a planning conference for a museum to be built at Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where the formal decision to murder European jewry was taken 45 years ago.

Elie Wiesel began his address in Yiddish. A literal translation follows:

“Hush, hush, let us be silent; tombs are growing here. Planted by the foe, they are green and turning to blue. . . Hush, my child, don’t cry, crying won’t do us any good; the foe will never understand our plight….”

This lullaby was written in the ghetto by Shmeike Katchegirsky. Grieving Jewish mothers would chant it, trying to put to sleep their hungry, weakened and agonizing children.

Tombs? These children—these innocent little children, perhaps the best our people ever had—were deprived of everything; their lives and even a burial place.

And so, hush, little children, one million of you, hush, come: we invite you. We invite you into our memory.

(The rest of Wiesel’s speech was in English.)

Yiddish in the Reichstag? There is symbolism in using this warm, melancholy and compassionate language in a place where Jewish suffering and Jewish agony—some 50 years ago—aroused neither mercy nor compassion.

Yiddish was the tongue of many if not most of the Jewish victims who perished during the dark period when the Angel of Death seemed to have replaced God in too many hearts in this country.

There is symbolism, too—as there is irony and justice—in my speaking to you this afternoon from this very rostrum where my own death, and the death of my family, and the death of my friends, and the death of my teachers and the death of my entire people, was decreed and predicted by the legally elected leader of Germany.

I would betray the dead were I not to remind you that his poisonous words did not make him unpopular with his people. Most applauded with fervor; some, very few, remained silent. Fewer still objected.

How many Jews found shelter in how many German homes during the Kristallnacht? How many Germans tried to help extinguish the synagogues in flames? How many tried to save holy scrolls?

In those days and nights, humanity was distorted and twisted in this city, the capital of a nation proud of its distant history, but struggling with its recent memories.

Everything human and divine was perverted then. The law itself became immoral. Here, in this city, on this rostrum, it was made legal and commendable to humiliate Jews simply for being Jews—to hunt down children simply because they were Jewish children.

It became legal and praiseworthy to imprison, shame and oppress and, ultimately, to destroy human beings—sons and daughters of an ancient people—whose very existence was considered a crime.

The officials who participated in the Wannsee conference knew they acted on behalf of their government and in the name 0f the German people.

The atrocities committed under the law of the Third Reich must not and will not be forgotten; nor will they be forgiven.

I have no right to forgive the killers for having exterminated six million of my kinsmen. Only the dead can forgive, and no one has the right to speak on their behalf.

Still, not all Germans alive then were guilty. As a Jew, I have never believed in collective guilt. Only the guilty were guilty.

Children of killers ate not killers but children. I have neither the desire nor the authority to judge today’s generation for the unspeakable crimes committed by the generation of Hitler.

But we may—and we must—hold it responsible, not for the past, but for the way it remembers the past. And for what it does with the memory of the past.

Memory is the keyword. To remember is to forge links between past and present, between past and future.

It is in the name of memory that I address myself to Germany’s youth. “Remember” is the commandment that dominates the lives of young Jews today; let it dominate your lives as well. Challenged by memory, we can move forward together. Opposed to memory, you will remain eternally opposed to us and to all we stand for.

I understand: of course, I understand: it is not easy to remember. It may be even mote difficult for you than it is for us Jews. We try to remember the dead, you must remember those who killed them. Yes—there is pain involved in both our efforts. Not the same pain. Open yourselves to yours, as we have opened ourselves to ours.

You find it hard to believe that your elders did these deeds? So do I. Think of the tormentors as I think of their victims. I remember every minute of their agony. I see them constantly. Jam afraid: if I stop seeing them, they will die. I keep on seeing them, and they died nevertheless.

I remember: 1942, in my childhood town, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains. Jewish children were playing in the snow, others studied hard at school. They were already decreed dead here in Berlin, and they did not know it.

There is something in all this I do not understand—I never will. Why such obstinancy on the part of the killer to kill so many of my people? Why the old men and women? Why the children?

You, young men and women in Germany, must ask yourselves the same questions.

A people that has produced Goethe and Schiller, Bach and Beethoven, chose suddenly to put its national genius at the service of evil—to erect a monument to its dark power called Auschwitz.

A community that contributed to culture and education, as few nations have, called all of culture and education into question. After all:

many of the killers had college degrees. And were products of the best universities in Germany. Many came from distinguished families.

Although I often wonder about the theological implications of Auschwitz, I must recognize that Auschwitz was not sent down from heaven. Auschwitz was conceived and built by human beings.

After Auschwitz, hope itself is filled with anguish.

But after Auschwitz, hope is necessary. Where can it be found? In remembrance alone

How was remembrance handled after the war? Admit it, it took many Germans far too long to begin to confront their past.

Teachers did nor teach, and pupils did not learn, the most tragic and important chapter in German and world history. Too painful, came the explanation.

It took the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for German courts to indict 88 murderers who, after the war, had quietly returned to their homes and resumed their trades—as if nothing had happened.

True, the situation in East Germany is worse. Unlike the Federal Republic, which did make a serious effort, under Konrad Adenauer, to compensate the survivors and to help Israel, East Germany is hostile to Israel and refused to pay reparations. East Germany, like Austria, shows not the slightest trace of remorse.

The Federal Republic has chosen a more honest and enlightened course. In just a few decades, you have traveled from brutal totalitarianism to true democracy.

The freedom of the individual is respected here. Your commitment to the Western alliance is firm.

Among you are individuals and groups to whom we feel especially close. They have been seeking atonement, in word and in deed; some have gone to work in Israel; others are involved in religious dialogues.

Writers, artists, poets, novelists, statesmen:

there are among them men and women who refuse to forget—and, make no mistake, the best books by German authors deal with the trauma of the past.

Now the museum. . . . What will it be?

Show pictures of Jews before they died.

Show the cold brutality of those who killed them.

Show the passivity, the cowardly indifference of the bystanders.

Remember the Jewishness of the Jewish victims, remember the uniqueness of their tragedy. True, nor all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.

Be the conscience of your nation. And remember, a conscience that does not speak up when injustices are being committed is betraying itself. A mute conscience is a false conscience.

In remembering, you will help your own people vanquish the ghosts that hover over its history. Remember: a community that does not come to terms with the dead will continue to traumatize the living.

We remember Auschwitz and all that it symbolizes because we believe that, in spite of the past and its horrors, the world is worthy of salvation; and salvation, like redemption, can be found only in memory.