Legendary Elizabeth Taylor and Her Commitment to the Jewish People
Introduction by Rabbi Marvin Hier, Founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center:
Elizabeth Taylor, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, August of 1975.
Photo: Israel Sun
The death of Elizabeth Taylor was front page news everywhere around the world. Her life, her more than sixty year career in Hollywood, her commitment to AIDS, and even her marriages were thoroughly dissected. Some even opined that we will never see the likes of her again. Less known, however, was why for most of her life, Elizabeth Taylor considered herself Jewish and identified so openly with the Jewish people. But unlike President Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, that commitment was much more than just an act of solidarity.
In 1980, Elizabeth Taylor, a great admirer of Simon Wiesenthal, agreed to narrate the Simon Wiesenthal's Center first documentary feature, "Genocide: The Story of the Holocaust," along with Orson Welles, which later won the Academy Award. At a dinner in her honor that year, she became the first recipient of the Wiesenthal Center's Humanitarian Award. For that occasion, she asked me to work with her on her acceptance speech. When she told me what she wanted to say, it became clear to me that she felt a great empathy for a people that had contributed so much to mankind and yet were the victims of such inhumanity. Those thoughts were beautifully expressed in her remarks and despite the passing of three decades, are still as relevant today as they were then:
Legendary actress, Elizabeth Taylor (right), is greeted by Israelís Prime Minister, Menahem Begin, in his Jerusalem office, September of 1979. Second from left is Gideon Path, then Minister if Commerce & Industry and later Chairman of Israel Bonds in the US.
Photo: Israel Simionsky/Israel Sun
Speech by legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor:
I'm so deeply touched by this moving tribute. Words hardly seem adequate on such an occasion. I stand before you with mixed emotions. Humbled that you have seen fit to bestow this unique honor on me. And yet at the same time, so very sad, because it brings back into focus that tragic epic in human history.
When death became ordinary. When torture was so trite. Silence so pronounced. When the tears of children gushed forth like running streams. When leaders forgot to lead. When few cared. When men and women forgot that they were formed in the image of G-D.
I am often tempted to speculate how fortunate I am to have escaped the horror. To have been spared the anguish, but when I think about it deeply, I realize I did not escape unscathed. None of us did. We were all in a sense there. Hovering above the gates of Auschwitz, trying to shield ourselves from the magnetic pull of its destructive force that wanted to do us all in -- Jew and Christian, black and white. It wanted everything we possessed and cherished. Our Van Gogh's, our Rembrandts, our Tennyson's, our Freud's, and our Einstein's.
Today a whole generation is growing up that doesn't know this. That has no memory of these events. That has no terms of reference to know how close we all came to the final curtain. Worse, around this new generation can be heard new ominous voices seeking to pollute their minds, to corrupt their values, to impair their future. In Europe and here in the United States, anti-Semitism is on the rise. Haters are running for public office pitting white against black, Christian against Jew.
Elizabeth Taylor at a press conference in Tel Aviv, September of 1979
Photo: Israel Sun
When I read the script for the Simon Wiesenthal Center's project, I could see the victims before my eyes. Their voices speaking to me. Tell our story they said to me. Nay, not for our sake for we are long gone, but for yours so you may live. I have tried so very hard to tell their agony and their heroism and I hope millions of people will see and hear their profound message.
I've never doubted the basic goodness of human beings. All my life I have been a believer in the tenacity of man to overcome the cruelest of tests and to raise high the spirit of human resilience. Come what may, I place my trust and faith in man's capacity never to yield to injustice. Yes, the work may be hard and the day short, the workers a bit sluggish. But life's reward is great and in the end we shall prevail.
In conclusion just let me say to the enemies of our people wherever they may be we say in the words of one of the victims, mir velen zey iberleben, we shall out live them. And to the friends of mankind, wherever they may be - chazak v'amatz! Be strong and be brave! Remember that in the final analysis, they that sow in tears shall yet reap in joy.