By Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was an American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, and Holocaust survivor.
During World War II, Wiesel and his family were transported to a German concentration and extermination
camp, where his parents and one of his sisters died. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his
work promoting human rights, and was called a “messenger to mankind” by the Nobel Committee. As you read,
take notes on the imagery Wiesel uses in his speech.
It is with a profound sense of humility that I accept
the honor you have chosen to bestow upon me. I
know: your choice transcends1 me. This both
frightens and pleases me.
It frightens me because I wonder: do I have the right
to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I
have the right to accept this great honor on their
behalf?… I do not. That would be presumptuous.2
one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret
their mutilated dreams and visions.
It pleases me because I may say that this honor
belongs to all the survivors and their children, and
through us, to the Jewish people with whose destiny I
have always identified.
I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago.
A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I
remember his bewilderment, I remember his
It all happened so fast. The ghetto.4
The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which
the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the 20th century, not the Middle Ages. Who would
allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?
And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done
- Transcend (verb) to rise above or go beyond
- Presumptuous (adjective) too confident, especially in a way that is rude
- Anguish (noun) severe mental or physical pain and suffering
- a section of a city in which Jews were forced to live
with your life?”
And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would
forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I
swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must
always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never
the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in
jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted
because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the
Of course, since I am a Jew profoundly rooted in my peoples’ memory and tradition, my first response is to
Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises. For I belong to a traumatized generation, one that experienced the
abandonment and solitude of our people. It would be unnatural for me not to make Jewish priorities my own:
Israel, Soviet Jewry, Jews in Arab lands… But there are others as important to me. Apartheid5
is, in my view, as
To me, Andrei Sakharov’s8
isolation is as much of a disgrace as Josef Biegun’s9
imprisonment. As is the denial of Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa’s10 right to dissent. And Nelson
Mandela‘s11 interminable12 imprisonment.
 There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism, and political
persecution, writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right. Human rights
are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. And then, too, there are the
Palestinians to whose plight13 I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore.14 Violence and terrorism are not the
answer. Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish
people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be
peace in and around the Holy Land.
Yes, I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the
only remedy to indifference: the most insidious15 danger of all. Isn’t this the meaning of Alfred Nobel’s16 legacy?
- the policy of racial segregation and discrimination in South African between 1948 and 1991
- Abhorrent (adjective) inspiring disgust and hatred
- hostility, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews
- Andrei Sakharov was a Russian nuclear physicist and activist for peace and human rights. He was sent to
internal exile from 1980 to 1986. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
- Josef Biegun was a political prisoner in Soviet-era Russia who was jailed because his advocacy for Russian
Jews was deemed “anti-Soviet.”
- Lech Wasela led the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc and won the Nobel Peace Prize in
- He was arrested for labor organizing several times.
- Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist who served
27 years in prison.
- Interminable (adjective) endless or apparently endless
- Plight (noun) a dangerous or difficult situation
- Deplore (verb) to feel or express strong disapproval of something
- Insidious (adjective) appealing but waiting to trap; producing a harmful effect that develops gradually
Wasn’t his fear of war a shield against war?
There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person — a Raoul Wallenberg,17 an Albert
Schweitzer,18 one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one
dissident19 is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with
anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not
forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on
ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.
This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I
speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude. No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has
emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering;
not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those
who need us desperately.
Thank you, Chairman Aarvik. Thank you, members of the Nobel Committee. Thank you, people of Norway, for
declaring on this singular occasion that our survival has meaning for mankind.
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation (1986)
Unless otherwise noted, this content is licensed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
- the founder of the Nobel Prize
- Raoul Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary by issuing protective
passports and offering shelter. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but never won.
- Albert Schweitzer was a French-German musician, philosopher, and physician who was awarded the 1952
Nobel Peace Prize for his work in philosophy.
- Dissident (noun) a person who opposes official policy, especially that of an authoritarian state
Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to share
your original ideas in a class discussion.
- In what ways can you lend your voice to help combat injustice and create a more peaceful world?
- In the context of this speech, what can we learn from tragedy? How does Wiesel advise us on the
future by reflecting on the mistakes of the past? What does he suggest we do to avoid future
tragedy and injustice? Cite evidence from this text, your own experience, and other literature, art,
or history in your answer.
- In the context of this speech, how can we achieve peace? How has Wiesel personally contributed to
the pursuit of peace? How does Wiesel think peace can be achieved? Cite evidence from this text,
your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.