The confrontation was startling and unforgettable. Elie Wiesel, the renowned author and concentration camp survivor, was lecturing the President of the United States with poetic force on the lessons of history and conscience. Yet when a haggard but impassioned Wiesel finished his speech accepting the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, the government’s highest award for civilians, he said he felt “sadness and anguish in my heart.” He had moved many of the 40 listeners in the White House to tears. But he had failed, at least for the moment, in his primary goal—to dissuade Ronald Reagan from visiting a German military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany on May 5 to lay a wreath at the graves of Nazi soldiers. The medal was in recognition of Wiesel’s unceasing effort to memorialize the six million Jews who died in Hitler’s death camps. Through his more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, Wiesel has testified eloquently to the horrors of genocide and celebrated the Jewish religious and cultural life the Nazis tried to destroy. But for the 56-year-old recipient the honor paled before the crisis at hand. “I’ve given close to 40 years of my life,” Wiesel says, “and if this can happen, then I have not achieved what I had hoped. It gives me a sense of my own nothingness, of how humble my possibilities are.”
The week’s events and their aftermath left Wiesel emotionally ravaged. On April 15 he had convened an emergency meeting of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council (created in 1978 to establish a museum in Washington, D.C.), of which he is chairman. There was a move among the council’s 65 members to resign en masse, but Wiesel managed to stall them. “I don’t like threats,” he explains. He considered boycotting the award, as many friends counseled, but finally decided to accept because “it’s not the President’s award, it’s a Congressional award, from the American people.” Even so, Wiesel and council members met in a second session, after Reagan asserted that, like inmates of the camps, the German soldiers he would honor “are victims of Nazism also.” Too tormented to sleep, Wiesel rose at 4 a.m. on Friday morning to toughen his speech.
At least one leader of a Holocaust survivors’ group indirectly criticized the “soft-spoken words” Wiesel chose. Despite Wiesel’s deferential tone (“I don’t believe in discourtesy,” he says), it took courage to tell a President to his face that he was wrong. And Wiesel first had to force the White House to back down on an attempt to limit his remarks to three minutes. Then, recalling even briefly the “suffering and loneliness” in the camps, the speech took its toll. Explains Wiesel, “I had to close my eyes and see myself 40 years ago.”
Wiesel was a starving teenager when American troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945. His father, Shlomo, had died in the camp three months before. Their hellish odyssey had begun when the Nazis herded the Jews of Wiesel’s Hungarian village of Sighet onto cattle cars bound for Birkenau. The boy’s mother and younger sister were killed on arrival. After liberation it took Wiesel 10 years before he could bring himself to write about the trauma.
Despite his insistence on memory, Wiesel agrees with Reagan that “the time to reconcile is now.” Rather than a visit to a cemetery containing the graves of 47 Storm Troopers, Wiesel beseeches the President “to go to a university and give them a message of humanity.”
What troubles him most is that Reagan equated German soldiers with the slaughtered millions. “Did any soldier in Germany feel what a concentration camp inmate felt, to know that he and his entire family are condemned to death?” Wiesel asks. “There is such a qualitative difference that it is almost unworthy of explaining.” Wiesel still believes Reagan to be “sincere and genuine” and hopes he will yet come around. “He must correct himself and clear the record,” Wiesel says. “He cannot leave this hideously inaccurate comparison between the Nazis and their victims on our consciousness.”