Rede von Elie Wiesel (27.01.2000)
Address to the German Bundestag
Berlin, 27 January 2000
President of the Bundestag,
President of the Bundesrat,
My dear Chancellor Schröder,
Members of the cabinet,
Distinguished Members of the Bundestag,
Allow me to tell you a story. But, first, I hope you understand that I speak to you as a witness. When a witness speaks, he or she must take a vow to tell the truth. The Jew that I am feels that he ought to make a prayer. 55 years ago the Russians came a bit too late for me and those who are close to me. Do not look at me and see the man that I am now. Please try and see in me the person I was 55 years ago. Today, I am here with my wife, Marion, and two very close friends, Inga and Ira, and so I will say a prayer. The prayer is from the Book of Baruch: „Blessed be the Lord for enabling me to be here at this day.“
And now a story.
Once upon a time in a faraway land, there lived a benevolent king. One day, he was told by his astrologists that the next harvest would be cursed and that whosoever would eat from it would go mad. And so he ordered an enormous granary built and stored there all that remained from the previous year’s crop. He then entrusted the granary’s key to his closest friend and this is what he told him: „When my subjects and their king will have been struck with madness, you and you alone will have the right to enter the storehouse and eat uncontaminated food. Thus you will escape the malediction. But in exchange, my poor friend, you will be dutybound to fulfill a vital and impossible task. Your mission will be to crisscross the earth, going from country to country, from town to town, from marketplace to marketplace, from person to person, shouting with all your might: 'Good people, do not forget that you are mad! Men and women, do not forget, do not forget that you are mad!'“
This tale, told by the very great Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, who was a forerunner of Franz Kafka, surely applies to this century which has just ended, a century, in which madness erupted in history and turned it often into a nightmare. And so the witnesses that we are, some of us, we, too, go around the world simply to say: „Don’t forget that you were mad, don’t forget that history has carried madness in it“. And so the man you so kindly invited to take part in this solemn and moving session devoted to the memory of the victims of what we so inadequately call Shoa or Holocaust - there are no words for it - is a son of an ancient people whose mission over the centuries has been to teach the oneness of God and the sacredness of human life. Some sixty years ago, in this very metropolis, in this city, this man that I am and his community, were condemned to isolation, distress, despair and death. And yet, I hope you believe me, I am a witness and I speak to you today with neither bitterness nor hate. All my adult life I have tried to use language to fight hate, to denounce it, to disarm it, not to spread it.
Will my words hurt you? That is not my intention. But please understand, when I entered this Chamber, I did not leave my memories behind. In fact, here, because of you, they are more vivid than ever. All I wish to do in this short time is to evoke in a few words an unprecedented event which will, for generations to come, continue to weigh on the destiny of my people and yours.
And this event, I still don’t understand it. I go on trying and trying. Since my liberation, on April 11, 1945, I have read everything I could lay my hands on that deals with its implications. Historical essays, psychological analyses, testimonies and testaments, poems and prayers, assassins’ diaries and victims’ meditations, even children’s letters to God. But though I managed to assimilate the facts, the numbers and the technical aspects of the „Aktionen“, the implacable significance which transcends them continues to elude me. The Nuremberg Laws, the anti-Jewish decrees, the Kristallnacht, the public humiliation of proud Jewish citizens, including brave World War I veterans, the first concentration camps, the euthanasia of German citizens, the Wannsee conference, where the highest officials of the land simply met to discuss the validity, the legality and the ways of killing an entire people. And then of course Dachau, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sobibor - the capitals of this century. Yes, these names ... flags, black flags, reminding a world that will come, of a world that has been. What made them possible? How is one to comprehend the cult of hatred and death that flourished in this country? How could bright young men, many superbly educated, from fine families, with diplomas from Germany’s best universities, which then were the best in the world, how could they allow themselves to be seduced by Evil to the point of devoting their genius, the genius of Evil, to the torture and the killing of Jewish men, women and children whom they had never seen? They didn’t do it because these Jews were rich or poor, believers or non-believers, political adversaries, patriots or universalists, but simply because they had been born Jewish. Their birth certificate had became a de facto death sentence. But did it really make these killers feel strong and heroic to murder defenceless children? Could they really have been so afraid of old and sick people, of small children as to make them their priority targets? What was it about them that was frightening? Their weakness, their innocence perhaps? Were the killers still human? That is the question which is my obsession. At what point does humanity end? Is there a limit beyond which humanity doesn’t deserve its name anymore?
While preparing myself for today’s encounter with you - an encounter of course which is symbolic on more than one level, as you put it very well, President of the Bundestag - I reread certain chronicles by survivors and witnesses, both living and dead. And I was struck again by how similar the scenes of cruelty were. It is as though one German, always the same, tortured and killed one Jew, for ever the same, six million times. Yet each episode is unique, for every human being, created in God’s image, is unique.
Since I am not a historian, rather than discuss history I tell stories. And here is one, just one: it takes place in September 1941 in Babi-Yar, in Kiev, as reported by an eyewitness, a certain B.A. Liebmann.
He tells of a Jewish family which has spent several days hiding in a cave. The mother decides to seek help in a nearby village with her two small children. They are intercepted by a group of drunken Germans who, in front of the mother, behead one child, then the second. As the distraught mother clutches the bodies of her dead children, the Germans, obviously delighted with the spectacle, kill the mother as well. And when the father appears on the scene, they murder him too. I don’t understand.
One could tell you more stories, six million more. Of all the crimes committed against my people, the Jewish people, the murder of its children is the worst. They were always the first to be taken and sent off to death. A million and a half Jewish children perished, Ladies and Gentlemen. If I were to begin reciting their names, the Moischeles, the Jankeles, the Sodeles, here and now, I would have to stand here for months and years.
Haven’t the peoples of the world lost so much, too, not only my own, through what was done? How many benefactors of humanity perished when they were a month old, or a year? There could have been among them scientists who would have discovered a remedy for AIDS, a cure for cancer. They could have written great poems to inspire everybody, to renounce violence and war, a few words perhaps or a song to bring people together at last.
There is a picture that shows laughing soldiers surrounding a Jewish boy in a ghetto, I think probably in the Warsaw ghetto. I look at it often. What was it about that sad and frightened Jewish child with his hands up in the air, that amused the German soldiers so? Why was tormenting him so funny? Were these soldiers, who likely were good husbands and fathers, not conscious of what they were doing? Weren’t they thinking of their own children and grandchildren, who one day would have to carry the burden of their crimes although, as I shall say later, they are innocent? Ivan Karamazov believed that „cruel people are sometimes very fond of children.“ Yes, but not of Jewish children.
Of course, for us Jews in occupied Europe, it soon became clear that the free world was aware of and therefore responsible, though to a much different degree, for what was happening to us. The Allies seemed not to care very much; they did not open their borders to us when there was still time. And so Berlin became convinced that our fate was of no real concern to anyone. Not even God, the God of Israel, seemed to care. More than anyone else’s, his silence was a mystery that continues to puzzle and distress many of us to this day. But that is another matter, one we debate mostly when we are among ourselves. Today, we shall speak only of Jews and Germans, then and now. My people has had innumerable enemies since it appeared on the world stage. We remember them all. But none had wounded us as deeply as Hitler’s Germany. Over time, we endured discrimination, persecution, many forms of isolation, we survived the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the various results of ingrained antisemitism. But the Holocaust went much farther indeed. I say it with pain: no nation, no ideology, no system has ever inflicted brutality, suffering and humiliation on such a scale on any people as yours has on mine in such a short period.
The sentence the Third Reich imposed upon us was deadly and irrevocable. The Final Solution, precisely outlined, was eschatological in nature; its goal was to annihilate every Jew, down to the last one on the surface of the earth. That was actually a kind of principal objective; the deportation of Hungarian Jews, and I am one of them as you know, had priority over the military convoys taking much-needed soldiers to the front.
I know, there were Germans who did not comply. And we must remember them, you and I. Those who had the courage to oppose the official racist ideology. Those who resisted the Nazi totalitarian regime. Those who tried to topple it and paid with their lives. And you are right in honouring their bravery. Only, sadly, they were few. And those who rescued Jewish friends and neighbours even fewer.
Now, many in Germany and elsewhere choose to put all the blame on the Nazis. „The Nazis did this or that,“ is the accepted formula. The Nazis, not the Germans.
Does it mean that there were two parallel histories of Germany, a Nazi history and a German history? Of course, all Germans were not Nazis. But I can tell you again as a witness, I remember in those times that the word German inspired fears; we were afraid when we heard that the Germans were coming.
Here, in this very place, the new leaders of the German people are so valiantly and honourably trying to build a new destiny, a more human philosophy of living. And we are here to tell you that we appreciate this. In those times, the decision to kill the Jews was taken at the highest level of government but was implemented down below. And for the victims, everything was German: the Zyklon gas was German, those who built the crematoriums were German, those who built the gas chambers were German, the orders given were German. As Paul Celan put it: „Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland.“ And Celan committed suicide because he felt probably that his words could not communicate this essential truth of his or our experience. Until the end of times, Ladies and Gentleman, Auschwitz will remain a part of your history, just as it will continue to be a part of mine.
I know, it is difficult and painful for you to think in these terms. Yours is a new generation, none of you have had to swear allegiance to Hitler. Of course, none of you have committed any crime or any sin. But I am sure that, in moments of anguish, you wonder where your parents were then, were did they stand then?
I feel compelled to tell you what I repeat everywhere I go, not only here: I do not believe in collective guilt; only the guilty and their accomplices are guilty, but surely not those who were not yet born, surely not their children. The children of killers are not killers, but children. And your children, many of them are so good. I know some of them; a few have been my students. They are so marvellous, so highly motivated, and at the same time tormented, understandably so. They somehow feel guilty, although they should not feel guilty at all. And what they are doing to somehow redeem your country, your people, is extraordinary. Whatever touches the spirit is of concern to them. They go to Israel to build, and they help any cause that deals with violation of human rights because they feel, your children feel that it is important not to forget this dark period.
So what is what we call the Holocaust? Was it the consequence of history, an aberration of history? This is not the time, nor the place to speak about that. There are other times, in school, when education is important. The Chancellor and I yesterday participated in a meeting in Stockholm about education on the Holocaust. And your words were very highly appreciated there. I am not sure that I have the answer to the Holocaust, but surely education is a major component of that answer. So emphasise education, increase the budget, do whatever you can so that the children, your children, who want to know, are able to know.
I am here, and I remember 55 years ago. I remember, and if I were to tell you what I remember, you would, like me, tremble. So, let us speak rather of what has to be done. I as a Jew, of course, speak of the Jewish victims, my people. Their tragedy was unique, but I do not forget other victims. When, as a Jew, I evoke the Jewish victims, I honour the others as well. As I like to put it: not all victims were Jewish but all Jews were victims.
And it is to remember them, Mr. President, Mr. Chancellor, President of the Bundestag, that this Parliament is marking the 27th of January as a day for commemorating the victims of the Nazi regime or, as I would call it, National Holocaust Remembrance Day. And this decision does you honour. And my presence here is meant, of course, to highlight your willingness to open the gates of memory and to declare together our conviction and resolution that it is high time for Cain to stop murdering his brother Abel.
Surely, there will be those who will say that it is too easy for you to devote one day a year just to pay a kind of homage and then go back to your normal business. Some will say it is a mockery. I don’t agree. I take your move very seriously. I don’t believe that it is to forget Auschwitz that you wish to remember its liberation. On the contrary, I believe that you wish to recall its liberation so as to condemn what preceded it, and to know more about it. I also believe that you will not listen to the indecent voices here in this land urging you to „turn the page“ because you allegedly are „fed up with those stories“. Those who want to turn the page have done so already. Not only have they turned the page, they have ripped it out of their consciousness. But by conspiring to obliterate the victims’ memory, those who want to turn the page are killing them a second time, and that will be their burden.
After the war, some of us expected a defeated and humiliated Germany to deliver a more powerful message of remorse and contrition, one that would be linked to morality; instead, in those years it was related more to politics. But, since Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s time, you have become a democracy, worthy of taking its place in the family of nations. You have consistently supported Israel, and your record of financial reparations to the victims, mainly to the Jewish victims, but also to all slave labourers, as the law you are introducing in Parliament stipulates, is positive. But I believe that perhaps the time has come for you to make a gesture that would have world-wide repercussions.
President Rau, you met a group of Auschwitz survivors few weeks ago. And one of them told me that you expressed something very moving. You asked for forgiveness for what the German people had done to them. Why shouldn’t you do it here? In the spirit of this solemn occasion. Why shouldn’t the Bundestag simply let this be known to Germany and its allies and its friends, and especially to young people? Have you asked the Jewish people to forgive Germany for what the Third Reich did in Germany’s name to so many of us? Do it, and it will have extraordinary repercussions in the world. Do it, and the significance of this they will acquire a higher dimension. Do it, and the world will know that its faith in this Germany is justified. For, beyond national, ethnic or religious considerations, it was mankind itself that was threatened then, in those darkest of days. And in some ways, it still is. Whatever this new century holds in store, and we desperately want to have hope for the new century and its new generation, Auschwitz will continue to force men to explore the deepest recesses of his and her being so as to confront their fragile truth.
I told you before that I prefer stories. I would like to conclude with the story of a little Jewish girl who died with her mother the night they arrived in Birkenau in May 1944. She was eight years old, and believe me, she had done nothing to hurt or harm your people - why did she have to die such an atrocious death? If her brother lives to be as old as the world itself, he will never understand. And so, he will simply quote another great Hasidic Master: Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov. He was known for his great compassion and he said: „My friends, do you wish to find the spark? Look for it in the ashes.“