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From sight to Kosovo: The President Clinton-Elie Wiesel Dialogue

At the recent "Millennium Evening" which took place at the East Room, President Clinton and Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and a famous writer, had a chance to discuss the issue of 'The Perils Of Indifference: Lessons Learned From A Violent Century.' The timing was perfect since the world has been witnessing the Kosovo's crimes against humanity, a new genocide in our time. At the beginning of this unique event, President Clinton remarked: "We know that the Nazis were able to pursue their crimes against humanity precisely because they were able to limit the circle of those defined as humans. The mentally ill, the infirm, gypsies, Jews - all were identified as lives unworthy of life. And this process of dehumanizing comes from the darkest regions of the human soul, where people first withdraw understanding, them empathy, and finally personhood. Now, this phenomenon of indifference, this human capacity for evil we know too well is not unique to that time and place in Nazi Germany."

Clinton introduced Elie Wiesel saying: "When Elie Wiesel accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he remembered asking his father how the world could have remained silent. And he imagined what that same young boy would ask him today. Tell me: What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life? And I tell him, Elie says, that I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget."

He kept drawing a lesson from the Holocaust. We fight the indifference to the plight of other human beings. We should not be entrapped by a bystanding syndrome and hesitate to save human beings, to rescue them. Wiesel described the situation over there: "Over there, behind the black gates of Auschwitz, the most tragic of all prisoners were the 'Muselmanner' as they were called. Wrapped in their torn blankets, they would sit or lie on the ground, staring vacantly into space, unaware of who or where they were, strangers to their surroundings. They no longer felt pain, hunger, thirst. They feared nothing. They felt nothing. They were dead and did not know it."

Later in his remarks he discusses the silence of the free world during the Holocaust era: "And our only miserable consolation was that we believed that Auschwitz and Treblinka were closely guarded secrets; that the leaders of the free world did not know what was going on behind those black gates and barbed wire; that they had no knowledge of the war against the Jews that Hitler's armies and their accomplices waged as part of the war against the Allies. If they knew, we thought surely those leaders would have moved heaven and earth to intervene. They would have spoken out with great outrage and conviction. They would have bombed the railways leading to Birkenau, just the railways, just once. And now we knew, we learned, we discovered that the Pentagon knew, the State Department knew. And the illustrious occupant of the White House then, who was a great leader - and I say it with some anguish and pain, because, today is exactly 54 years marking his death - Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April the 12th, 1945, so he is very much present to me and to us.

Wiesel, in order to stress the terrible omission, pointed out the heroic examples of the 'righteous gentiles' who risked their life in order to rescue Jews from death. And he concluded: "How is one to explain their indifference?" In response, President Clinton said that we must learn how to prevent indifference to human plight. That the message of this discussion in the White House. There is a need to learn the past in order to avoid mistakes in the future.

"Elie has said that Kosovo is not the Holocaust, but that the distinction should not deter us from doing what is right. I agree on both counts. When we see people forced from their homes at gunpoint, loaded onto train cars, their identity papers confiscated, their very presence blotted from the historical record, it is only natural that we would think of the events which Elie has chronicled tonight in his own life.

"We must always remain awake to the warning signs of evil. And now, we know that it is possible to act before it is too late. The efforts of Holocaust survivors to make us remember and help us understand, therefore, have not been in vain. The people who fought those battles and lived those tragedies, however, will not be around forever. More than a thousand World War II veterans pass away every day. But they can live in our determination to preserve what they gave us and to stand against the modern incarnations of the evil they defeated," said Clinton. Wiesel, answering questions which poured to the White House from all over the USA said: "I do not believe in collective guilt.

Only the guilty are guilty. Even the children of the killers are not killers, they are children." Also, Wiesel and President Clinton alike called on humanity to preserve the memory of the Holocaust: "I am worried about what will happen when the last survivor will be around. I would not like to be that survivor," said Wiesel, the voice of the six millions martyrs.

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