Holocaust Collection Speeches
Elie Weisel - Dedication Address - May 11, 1979
I speak to you as a son of a people whose suffering is the most ancient in the world. I speak to you as a Jew who has seen certain things in his life and yours and feels his duty to share his vision, his words, with you. I speak to you as a Jew who came from over there and would never have believed that one day he will have to speak to you.
I come from a small city somewhere in Eastern Europe. I come from a place where every Jew was drunk with God, whose faith was burning as was burning the vision of the first Jew in history. In that place, I would never have entered a place such as this - I owe you truth. In that place I saw that the world was divided, and there is an abyss between the two. We were not accepted by the others and, therefore, we did not accept the others, and I was convinced that, until the Messiah would come, this is what will happen until the Days of Days. We shall remain alone.
It took war - and some war - to take the "bachur yeshiva", the student of the yeshiva that I was and hopefully still am, to come to the Holy Cross and speak to you about Jews...about Jewish suffering and about, you must forgive me, your responsibility in it. I am saying it without bitterness and surely without anger and, of course, without hate. I believe that these events, as all events, must bring us together instead of setting us apart. Whatever happened during those years of darkness and anguish was a result of separation and human denial; and, therefore, we must do whatever we can to turn this abyss into a bridge. And we should all respect one another. I mean we should all respect the uniqueness, the originality, the specificity in one another. We Jews must respect you and your tradition, as you, I am sure you will agree with me, must tolerate, respect mine.
Obviously, a dedication is a day of rejoicing. Actually, it calls for celebration but, since those events, we have learned that things today are no longer what they used to be.
Mr. and Mrs. Hiatt, of course it's a great honor this College has done to you. It's an honor to you and to our people. But, then, why is there no celebration? Because, how can we celebrate? We close our eyes and we open them again, and what we see has everything in it to stifle the song. It has everything in it to break our hearts. There is going to be a library, and what are you going to read in the books that will be in that library? You will read books of sadness and tragedy, books of solitude. There is no solitude that could be compared and that will ever be compared to the solitude of our people in those years - maybe God's. God alone has been and will be as alone as the Jew was in Eastern Europe and in Germany in those years. Suddenly we were expelled from history; suddenly we were expelled from memory; suddenly the killers could kill. And we had no friends, no allies, no one cared.
For a time we were convinced that the world didn't know and that was a consolation, and therefore from every ghetto and from every camp - even from the worst of the death camps, from the Zonderkommandos in Auschwitz - messages were smuggled out alerting good people, trying to tell them, "Look, do something," because they were convinced that the world didn't know.
My good friends, had we known that the world did know, I wonder how many of us would have had the courage to go on living, in such a society which was doomed by its own indifference. Why? Why build? For whom? Why proclaim faith, and in whom? Only after the war did we learn the truth - that everything was known. In fact, things were known in Washington and in Sweden and the Vatican before we knew them. The names Treblinka and Oszwiencim, or Auschwitz, were known to the vatican and to Washington and to London before we heard them, because nobody bothered to tell us, nobody cared. So therefore, in the books that you will read, you students and teachers, you will find many reasons to despair. You will find children who grew old, ageless - six-, seven-year old children who became wiser than the oldest of my teachers, simply because what they have seen in their youth no old man has ever seen.
Truth - truth on the scale of absolute - they have seen the face of Creation and its Creator. You will find that old men, helpless, desperate because they realized their wisdom and their learning were for naught. You will find parents who didn't know how to help their children; you will find friends who lost all faith in friendship; you will find people who tried to fight and had nothing to fight with, people - young people, mainly young people.
The Warsaw Ghetto, when it began its uprising it was from April to May. The entire high command of Mordechai Anilewicz, who was the chief commander of that ghetto, of that uprising - the first civil uprising in occupied Europe - the entire command did not amount to 120 years. They were all teenagers, and they one day decided simply to take Jewish history on their shoulders and carry it forward into death and beyond it. And they appealed for help, and they appealed again, and again, and the world knew.
Forty-eight hours after the uprising began, the New York Times and, I imagine, the Boston Globe carried the story with full details. Not one message was sent, not even a message of encouragement. Not one message, let alone air drops, agents - nothing. Almost in every ghetto there were youngsters who tried to fight. With what? Of course, you will find glory. There is glory in these youngsters who defied the German army, which was then the mightiest legion in Europe. And yet it took the Germans longer to conquer the Warsaw ghetto than to conquer Poland or France.
You will find pages of despair written by the chroniclers in the ghetto - Ringelblum, Kaplan, Huberband - everyone became a chronicler. Everyone became a historian. Everybody wanted to bear witness because that suddenly became the primary mission - the ultimate task. Why do you think they wanted to write? For you and me. For they knew they were doomed, but they believed that, if the story could be told, more people, all people, could learn certain lessons. And therefore they wrote, and when you read their writings, as you will, you will realize the strange texture of their literature - half sentences - a word. Why? Because they were always afraid they would not be able to finish the sentence. Because they would begin a sentence and the next minute they could be taken and carried to Treblinka or Maidanek, and when they began a sentence therefore, they stayed with the word - one word - but what words!
These words one day will enter our liturgy because they contain the sacred memory and the sacred desire of a people to remain human in an inhuman world. You will read stories of people who prayed and of people who did not. You will read stories in those books of people who went to their death identity and of others who did not.
A universe lived and died. Mankind lived and perished in those days, in those nights. So, therefore, nothing can be more useful, Mr. and Mrs. Hiatt, than to have a library in every college and in this one, too. Nothing can be more urgent for our generation than to remember those days. Not to remember would turn us into accomplices of the killers. For the killers had only one task: to erase the memory of their deeds and, therefore, they did not kill once. They killed twice. First they killed, and then they burned. They burned their victims hoping that nobody will ever know. That was their desire, that was their goal. So not to remember would turn anyone into an accomplice of the killers. To remember would turn anyone into a friend of the victims. Did they need friends? Do they need friends now? And yet, bear in mind that no matter how many books we will read, you will never know the truth.
That is the mystery, Mr. President, that you mentioned in your remarks. There is a mystery of the Holocaust; it will remain a mystery. Even if I were to give you the names and you were to read all of the documents, all the narrations, all the memoirs, all the books - still, you will not know what happened. You will not know what was the anguish and the nightmare of one child who belonged to the procession - a nocturnal procession of men and women, beggars and princes, teachers and students and all converging, converging in the place of fire and death. You will never know, but we must try to tell you. Fragments, yes; tears, yes; but not a total picture. But still if you hear well, then maybe salvation is possible.
If you are ready to absorb what has been offered to you, then maybe hope is possible, but only then. You have begun, and for this, as a Jew who came from a very far away place, I want you to know that I am glad to be here, and that I thank you.
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Vincent A. Lapomarda (firstname.lastname@example.org) with comments or questions.
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