Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Lessons of Buchenwald and War: And, again, I ask, why not?

As part of President Obama’s itinerary to the Middle East and Europe, Elie Wiesel walked the hallowed and sacred ground of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany along with President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and another holocaust survivor, Bertrand Herz.

As a part of that highly emotional tour, President Obama gave a speech, “The Lessons of Buchenwald and War,” who then invited Elie Wiesel to make remarks. Although President Obama’s speech was good, and given in his familiar style, Mr. Wiesel’s words, in light of his experience, were more remarkable.

Elie Wiesel, when he was 15, was taken off with his family to the concentration camps at Birkenau and Auschwitz, where he remained until January 1945 when, along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, he was moved to Buchenwald in a forced death march. Buchenwald was liberated on April 11, 1945, by the United States army, but neither Wiesel's parents nor his younger sister survived. (Wikepedia)

Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. When Mr. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee remarked: [Elie Wiesel has been a] "messenger to mankind," noting that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps," as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace," Wiesel had delivered a powerful message "of peace, atonement and human dignity" to humanity. (Wikepedia)

The following are excerpts from Mr. Wiesel remarks at Buchenwald:

The day he [his father] died was one of the darkest in my life. He became sick, weak, and I was there. I was there when he suffered. I was there when he asked for help, for water. I was there to receive his last words. But I was not there when he called for me, although we were in the same block; he on the upper bed and I on the lower bed. He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there.

And I thought one day I will come back and speak to him, and tell him of the world that has become mine. I speak to him of times in which memory has become a sacred duty of all people of good will — in America, where I live, or in Europe or in Germany, where you, Chancellor Merkel, are a leader with great courage and moral aspirations.

What can I tell him that the world has learned? I am not so sure. Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place, where people will stop waging war — every war is absurd and meaningless; where people will stop hating one another; where people will hate the otherness of the other rather than respect it.

But the world hasn’t learned. When I was liberated in 1945, April 11, by the American army, somehow many of us were convinced that at least one lesson will have been learned — that never again will there be war; that hatred is not an option, that racism is stupid; and the will to conquer other people’s minds or territories or aspirations, that will is meaningless.

I was so hopeful. Paradoxically, I was so hopeful then. Many of us were, although we had the right to give up on humanity, to give up on culture, to give up on education, to give up on the possibility of living one’s life with dignity in a world that has no place for dignity.

We rejected that possibility and we said, no, we must continue believing in a future, because the world has learned. But again, the world hasn’t. Had the world learned, there would have been no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia.

Will the world ever learn? I think that is why Buchenwald is so important — as important, of course, but differently as Auschwitz. It’s important because here the large — the big camp was a kind of international community. People came there from all horizons — political, economic, culture. The first globalization essay, experiment, were made in Buchenwald. And all that was meant to diminish the humanity of human beings.

World War I, at the time, was hoped for as “the war to end all wars.” Then without an effort to make those words stand, World War II was embarked upon with war raging against the Japanese and Germans. On Saturday, the world observed the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, when World War II Allied Forces stormed the beaches at Normandy, France, which was significant to the defeat of Germany’s Adolph Hitler. World War II finally ended against Japan and Germany in 1945. Over seventy million people, the majority of whom were civilians, were killed, making it the deadliest conflict in human history. Again, Word War II was so horrific the world declared it “the war to end all wars.”

Since then we have involved ourselves in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as other belligerent actions around the world. And, as Elie Wiesel point out, we still had the horrors of Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and Bosnia.

Americans and most of the world say that they understand that war is heart-wrenching, horrific, a great evil, and a holocaust greater than any other, while at the same time, paradoxically, glorify war and believe it is the path of the true hero. War, unfortunately, remains the force that gives us meaning.

Presidents, historians, and scholars, say that history is a great teacher. They are correct, we have learned from history. However, instead from those experiences finding roads to peace, we have found better and more efficient ways to wage war and greater efficiency in the methods and means to kill each other.

People have not learned. America nor the world will never learn, grow, and evolve over time to a better place as long as Americans embrace a mindset that dictates peace as not possible; that dictates belligerence supersedes negotiation. When Americans call me, in a derogatory manner, a peace lover, and in doing so resign himself or herself to the belief that there has always been war and there will always continue to be war, which in so many words seems to always be there follow-through remark; when people think killing is better than talking, then we will never achieve world peace.

Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. senator and the attorney general in the administration of his brother John F. Kennedy, and who was assassinated during his 1968 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, famously said, "There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not." Why not, why can’t we, as Elie Wiesel has said, have a world “where people will stop waging war — every war is absurd and meaningless; where people will stop hating one another; where people will hate the otherness of the other rather than respect it.”

General Moshe Dayan, former Israeli Defense Minister, said, "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." And I ask, as does President Obama asks, why not? We must build paths to peace.

Will the world ever learn? Will there ever be a time when we say, never again, and actually mean it?

If Americans and the citizens of our world cannot dream of things that never were, envision a world at peace and ask themselves why not, why can't we achieve a world at peace, and take personal responsibility for it, the answer will continue to be no.