Presentation Speech by Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is today exactly 50 years since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the German public figure and pacifist, Carl von Ossietzky.1 That particular award was one of the most controversial ever made. The newly established Nazi regime in Germany was violently critical of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and German citizens were forbidden to accept Nobel prizes in the future.
This type of reaction was in a way so predictable that it can be ignored. What we ought to be more interested in, on the other hand, is the type of reaction which came from countries other than Germany. Many were of course delighted, but there were also many commentators who were sceptical. Leading figures in politics and the press expressed the opinion that Ossietzky was too extreme in his warnings and revelations. Some believed him to be a communist. In any case, it was argued, the cause of peace was poorly served by a Peace Prize which seemed to be a direct provocation of the German government.
The existence of such reactions was obviously partly a result of judging the Hitler regime by current political and moral criteria. Most people were, in contrast to Ossietzky, unable to recognise the deadly threat to democracy which was developing. When the threat was at last recognised people were more or less paralysed by the “Hitler-roar”, and had few resources to fight it with, other than the almost desperate appeasement politics represented by Chamberlain. During Nazism’s formative years the general attitude was one of unsuspicious ambivalence. Of course one disagreed with Hitler, but when is one not in disagreement with politicians? And of course one was aware of the terrible rumours about the brownshirts’ atrocities, but wasn’t it necessary to evaluate this against the background of the extraordinary situation in the country? At least there was now a strong and active government, and Hitler was of course a democratically elected leader… Most people feared some sort of unavoidable catastrophe. But only a few suspected the extent of what was happening – and it is precisely because of this blindness that the catastrophe was allowed to happen. Ibsen’s buttonmaker was proved right once again: “…it’s when insight is lacking that the fellow with the hoof takes his best prey”.
Carl von Ossietzky had insight. He has the courage and ability to tell of what he saw, and therefore acted as an unafraid witness for truth and justice. All honour to the then Nobel Committee for awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize. His testimony was, however, also his doom – Ossietzky did not survive his meeting with the terrible regime which had established itself in the heart of Europe.
Today, fifty years later, the Peace Prize is to be presented to one who survived. In 1945, on the ashes left behind after the sacrificial flames which annihilated six million Jews, sat the seventeen-year-old Elie Wiesel, an only son of Abraham, an Isaac who once again had escaped a sacrificial death on Mount Moriah at the last moment. He will receive the Nobel Peace Prize today because he, too, has become a witness for truth and justice. From the abyss of the death camps he has come as a messenger to mankind – not with a message of hate and revenge, but with one of brotherhood and atonement. He has become a powerful spokesman for the view of mankind and the unlimited humanity which is, at all times, the basis of a lasting peace. Elie Wiesel is not only the man who survived – he is also the spirit which has conquered. In him we see a man who has climbed from utter humiliation to become one of our most important spiritual leaders and guides.
The Nobel Committee believes it is vital that we have such guides in an age when terror, repression, and racial discrimination still exist in the world.
With today’s presentation of the Peace Prize, a bridge is built between the German who gave his life in the fight against what he saw was going to happen and the Jew who has dedicated his life to fighting anything that could lead to a recurrence of that same tragedy. It is appropriate that there is a Nobel Peace Prize at both ends of that bridge.
Elie Wiesel was born on the 30th of September 1928 in the Romanian town of Sighet in the Carpathians. He and his three sisters grew up in a peaceful family which was strongly bound by Jewish traditions and the Jewish religion. Elie was fourteen years old when the deportation of Hungarian Jews began. Sighet was now occupied by Hungary, and the town’s Jewish population was packed, in the usual humiliating way, into goods wagons and transported to Auschwitz. There he saw his mother and youngest sister sent to the gas chambers. Later, his father died while being transported to Buchenwald.
Through his books Elie Wiesel has given us not only an eyewitness account of what happened, but also an analysis of the evil powers which lay behind the events. His main concern is the question of what measures we can take to prevent a recurrence of these events.
The terrors he encountered in the death camps, which were slowly revealed to the rest of the world, were something which was qualitatively new in the history of mankind. The Holocaust was a war within a war, a world in itself, a kingdom of darkness where there existed an evil so monstrous that it shattered all political and moral codes. It represented a new dimension. According to its theoretical basis, which could only have been the product of sick minds, it was a capital offence to belong to a certain race! This was previously unimaginable, but now the unimaginable was happening.
It is true that previous regimes had used brutal punishment against real or imagined opponents, but behind such measures there was always an element of logical – though perverted – reasoning. The punishment was the result of some injury or offence, either actual or potential.
But for the Jews – and, to a certain extent, the Romanies – the situation was different. Among the relics of the Nazi regime have been found registration forms used when arresting Jews. The usual details were noted down: name, age, sex, religion, address, and, of course, reason for arrest. In the last case only one word was entered, the word JEW.
The enormity of what happened is thus not only the sheer number of the victims; it is not only the existence of factory-like slaughter houses. No, the enormity lies in the philosophy which made this “industry” possible! It is this that Elie Wiesel wants us to understand. His mission is not to gain the world’s sympathy for the victims or the survivors. His aim is to awaken our conscience. Our indifference to evil makes us partners in the crime. That is the reason for his attack on indifference and his insistence on measures aimed at preventing a new holocaust. We know that the unimaginable has happened. What are we doing now to prevent it happening again? Do not forget, do not sink into a new blind indifference, but involve yourselves in truth and justice, in human dignity, freedom, and atonement. That is this Peace Prize laureate’s message to us.
Elie Wiesel’s sojourn in the death camps ended in Buchenwald in the spring of 1945, when the prisoners were liberated by American troops. Together with a group of other Jewish children he was sent to France. His stay in France was part convalescence, part study: he learnt French and studied at the Sorbonne before becoming a correspondent with a Tel Aviv newspaper. He travelled to the USA as a journalist, became a correspondent with a New York Jewish paper, and took American citizenship in 1963. In the meantime he had published a number of books, of which Night (1956) was the first. His writings, which have been translated into many languages, now include twenty-six full-length books, together with a large number of articles, essays, and lectures. He has been awarded a number of honours and prizes.
Elie Wiesel is an honorary professor at City College in New York and has, in addition, a professorship in humanities at Boston University. He is the leader of the American Holocaust Commission instigated by the President of the USA. Biographical details are perhaps unnecessary in Elie Wiesel’s case – he is best presented through his own writings and through his actions in pursuit of his call.
Naturally enough, it was his own people’s fate which formed the starting point for his involvement. During the years, however, his message has attained a universal character. Presented as it is in different variations and in different contexts, it stands now as communication from one human being to humankind. Its involvement is limitless, and encompasses all who suffer, wherever they might be. The fight for freedom and human dignity – whether in Latin America, Asia, Europe or South Africa – has become his life’s purpose.
This involvement is based on a strong feeling of duty to the lessons which history teaches us. It has been said that peoples or cultures who forget their history are doomed to repeat it, and it is against the background of his own experiences that Elie Wiesel now warns us of this. We cannot allow ourselves to forget the fate of those who died. If we do forget, we commit them to death once again, and become responsible ourselves for making their lives – and their deaths – meaningless. This warning has also a future perspective: we must not allow the unsuspicious ambivalence to return and open the way for an atomic holocaust. We cannot allow ourselves to be deluded into believing that the unthinkable will not happen. For it has happened once before. History has warned us.
The duty and responsibility which Elie Wiesel preaches are not primarily concerned with the fear of the terrors of the past repeating themselves. It is much more an engagement directed at preventing the possible victory of evil forces in the future. The creative force in this process is not hate and revenge, but rather a longing for freedom, a love of life and a respect for human dignity. Or as Elie Wiesel has said himself: “I will conquer our murderers by attempting to reconstruct what they destroyed”.
No, Elie Wiesel’s standpoint is not characterised by a passive obsession with a tragic history; rather it is a reconstructed belief in God, humanity, and the future. And it is truly a belief which is both hard-won and tested.
Elie Wiesel sat thus in the ashes after Auschwitz. The storm and fire had terrorised his life. Everything was in ruins. His family was annihilated. Two of his sisters were alive, though he was not aware of this at the time. He was homeless and without a fatherland. Even his identity as a human being was undermined – he was now prisoner number A 7713, a sort of shipwrecked sailor on a burnt coast, without hope, without a future. Only the naked memories remained. And, like Job in the ashes, he sat there and questioned his God – cast his agonised “WHY?” towards heaven: Why did this have to happen? And why should I have survived? Dear God, why were six million of your own chosen people sent to their deaths? Where were you when they hanged twelve-year-olds in Auschwitz, or burned small children alive in Birkenau?
He was seventeen years old, and how could a life be lived after what had happened? The sorrow was so great, and the experience of life so bitter. Indeed, he was only seventeen, but was already the lonely prophet of the Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow”.
But he was alive. And in time it occurred to him that there could be a purpose behind it – that he was to be a witness, the one who would pass on the account of what had happened so that the dead would not have died in vain and so that the living could learn.
The problem was that the story was impossible to tell. No human being could accurately describe the terror which existed in the death camps. To tell could thus easily become a betrayal of the dead. But to remain silent would be an even greater betrayal.
He remained silent for ten years. Then his profession as a journalist brought him into contact with the French poet and Nobel prizewinner, Francois Mauriac. This meeting led him to break his silence – at first with Night and then in the course of very short time with Dawn, The Accident, The Town Beyond the Wall, The Gates of the Forest, the play Zalmen, A Beggar in Jerusalem, and his credo Ani Maamin – “I believe”.
All Elie Wiesel’s books and publications are concerned with the same theme – the Holocaust is present in them all. As he himself says: “You can get out of Auschwitz, but Auschwitz can never get out of you”. But, even though the theme is always the same, and even though the same story is repeated time after time, there is always a new approach which opens up new perspectives. There is a remarkable development in Wiesel’s authorship. We see a forward looking development in a human being who regains his upright position and his individual identity.
In the beginning everything is night and dark, On the last page of Night he stands in front of the mirror and sees a face which is like a bleached skull. Even in Dawn the day doesn’t dawn – the whole book is a fight with the darkness of night. The problem is constantly the same painful question: “How can one live a meaningful life under the weight of such agonising memories?” Is the German philosopher correct in stating that memory is in the service of everlasting agony? Was there no way forward to day and to light?
The answer comes slowly. We meet the first intimation of dawn in The Town Beyond the Wall where two prisoners, one of whom is mad and the other dumb, manage to find a means by which they can communicate with one another. The dumb prisoner breaks his silence and the lunatic shows that he perhaps isn’t so insane after all. They build a relationship which is a salvation for both of them. The same thought is developed in The Gate of the Forest and A Beggar in Jerusalem, and, as the books progress, the light becomes brighter. The man raises himself up. The spirit conquers. The answer to the riddle of the night is not hate based on what has happened, but a believing and hopeful rebirth into future events. This is what he calls The Refound Song which appears in his credo, his Ani Maamin: I believe in God – in spite of God! I believe in Mankind – in spite of Mankind! I believe in the Future – in spite of the Past!
And with this hard-won belief he stands forward today with his message to all people on this earth. This is a message which not only awakens our conscience, but also inspires a limitless solidarity where individuals find one another in the labor of building a “Town Beyond the Wall” for the future – beyond the wall of evil and dark memories.
It is on account of this inspiration that Elie Wiesel has so successfully reached out with his message. I doubt whether any other individual, through the use of such quiet speech, has achieved more or been more widely heard. The words are not big, and the voice which speaks them is low. It is a voice of peace we hear. But the power is intense. Truly, the little spark will not be put out, but will become a burning torch for our common belief in the future. Truly, prisoner number A 7713 has become a human being once again – a human being dedicated to humanity.
And, once again, we have met the young Jew at the ford Jabbok in the book of Genesis – he who in the darkness of night wrestled with God, he who refused to release his opponent before his opponent blessed him and who left that place at dawn marked for life on his hip. It was to this man that the promise of the future was made from on high: “Thy name shall be called… Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed”.
It is in recognition of this particular human spirit’s victory over the powers of death and degradation, and as a support to the rebellion of good against the evil in the world, that the Norwegian Nobel Committee today presents the Nobel Peace Prize to Elie Wiesel. We do this on behalf of millions – from all peoples and races. We do it in deep reverence for the memory of the dead, but also with the deep felt hope that the prize will be a small contribution which will forward the cause which is the greatest of all humanity’s concerns – the cause of peace.
1. Carl von Ossietzky (1889-1938) was a pacifist journalist, who opposed the secret rearming of Germany during the Weimar Republic. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he was thrown into a concentration camp. In 1936 he was awarded the postponed Nobel Peace Prize of 1935. See Irwin Abrams, The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates, pp. 125-129.
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See them all presented here.