Elie Wiesel and Ben Kingsley Honored at US Holocaust Museum 20th Anniversary Dinner
By Henry Levy
Elie Wiesel and Ben Kingsley held the rapt attention of over 600 people at the U.S. Holocaust Museum's gala in New York celebrating its 20th anniversary. The event also paid tribute to museum founders Halpern, Pantirer, Pines and Schwartz whose families have provided continued support this historic museum.
I was excited to be among a handful of reporters invited to a private roundtable discussion with Kingsley and Wiesel. Here were two unassuming and humble people who have had a major impact in their respective fields. Kingsley spoke about his portrayals of Simon Wiesenthal, Otto Frank, in the Anne Frank miniseries, Itzhak Stern, creator of the list in Spielberg's "Schindler's List", and Gandhi. He mentioned the extreme difficulty as an actor to describe the indescribable and communicate what can't be communicated. He added that "in character I probably said far more profound and courageous things than I'd be able to say in real life." When asked if he met with any anti-Semitism in Europe he said that in Poland, while filming Schindler's List a man insulted one of his Israeli actors and "I am not Jewish, but I reacted violently � I threatened to strangle him and he was extradited from the country." During his remarks he quoted Wiesel saying,"Let us tell tales to remember how vulnerable man is so as not to let the executioner to have the last word. The last word belongs to the victim." He recalled one phrase Otto Frank kept repeating, "Listen to my child." In fact, once while Kingsley was in make-up, one of Otto Frank's friends visited him in his trailer and upon seeing him opened his arms wide and said, "That is my friend."
Sitting next to Elie Wiesel was an intense experience. He is very soft spoken with a keen focus and remarkable recall of events and the emotions he felt which are conveyed in an uncanny manner. I asked him to tell of his encounter with President Reagan in 1985 when he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and his remarks at the ceremony caused quite a stir. Wiesel said that Reagan was going to visit the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany to lay a wreath for those who lost their lives during WWII. Wiesel publicly urged him not to do it as there were graves of Nazi SS buried there as well. He added, that prior to the ceremony, Reagan told him privately that he felt pressured to do it. Wiesel told him that at the ceremony, you speak then I speak and say that that place is not your place and you can agree with me. Reagan replied that if I do that what would Chancellor Kohl say? Elie responded, just say you will make it up to him. That never happened so Wiesel chastised the President for all to hear. He told us that one must always speak truth to power and he did. He said, "May I, Mr. President, if it's possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS."
When asked about the Holocaust becoming not just a Jewish tragedy but an event with modern implications in Rwanda, Somalia etc. He said that "My way of formulating it is that it is a Jewish tragedy with universal applications." When asked to comment on his ability to maintain a sense of hope in the concentration camp he said, "Hope was not about a better world, but about a better soup the next day." In trying to describe a day in the camps he said, "I who have devoted my life to tell the tale say there were no words. Maybe a new language was necessary. God's words were necessary to be spoken." He said that if there is a chance for humanity to redeem itself it was only through memory and that "Forgetfulness is not an option." He questioned whether the world would ever learn and said it can't. It didn't in Cambodia or Rwanda or other places of mass murder. And he was skeptical that anti-Semitism would stop when he remarked, "With Auschwitz in our memory who would have thought there would still be anti-Semitism and a growing anti-Semitism. If Auschwitz didn't cure the world of anti-Semitism, what will and what can?" He called today's #1 anti-Semite, Ahmadinejad who wants to destroy the Jewish state. "How can we accept that? I told the heads of State we must arrestAhmadinejad for intent to commit genocide." He was passionate about Israel saying, "It is the soul of our soul, the fire of our life." He was passionate about the U.S. Holocaust Museum which to him is more than stories and picture. He said, "We believe in our history. We believe in our mission in the world. We believe it is always up to us in our daily lives and in our privileged moments, moments such as this tonight, to believe that every human being must, in his or her dedication to ethos, to morality, always think higher and deeper. That is what I would write as a slogan for all those who enter the gates of the museum."
Sara Bloomfield, the museum's director honored the families of those that founded the museum. She also warned that hate is infecting new generations because knowledge is declining. She urged the need to address these acts of hate, anti-Semitism and genocide to new generations and to do it before the survivors are all gone. She concluded, "Future generation' s connection to the Holocaust will only be determined by the messages that we forge. Help us to secure the museum's future. Our successors will not forgive us if we fail and not forget us if we succeed."
To learn more visit the museum's website www.ushmm.org.