A rare treat for me at the October 23 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum New York Tribute Dinner, held at The Pierre, was a private pre-dinner chat with Academy Award-winning actor Ben Kingsley and the museum’s founding chairman, Elie Wiesel. The festive event honored the Halpern, Pantirer, Pines andSchwartz, families who were instrumental in building the museum. The museum was celebrating its 20th anniversary.
I asked Kingsley — who hails from the United Kingdom and portrayed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in HBO’’s 1989 “Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story,” and Otto Frank in the 2001 miniseries “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” — if he’d had any personal experiences with anti-Semitism. Kingsley replied, “I witnesses anti-Semitism in Europe, particularly in Poland whilst filming ‘Schindler’s List.’” Kingsley portrays Itzhak Stern, the compiler of the lifesaving “list.” “I am not Jewish, but I reacted violently, not verbally,” he told me. “It was shortly after we left the set, and [a man] insulted one of my Israeli actors…. I threatened to strangle him, and he was extradited from the country…. I will not go back. I think Europe is going through extremely difficult times, and they will find their scapegoats again. But then, I am only an actor, and what do I know?” I replied, “Actors can get away with things that politicians can’t.” “Can they? Yes, they can,” Kingsley said. “Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth. In fact, in character probably said far more profound and courageous things than I’d be able to in real life.”
When I asked Wiesel to comment on the universalization of the Holocaust and about the Holocaust becoming not just a Jewish tragedy, but also on a par with events in Rwanda, Somalia, etc. [, Wiesel responded, “My way of formulating it is that it is a Jewish tragedy with universal implications and applications.” Had he returned to his birthplace, Sighet, Transylvania (now part of Romania)? “Yes. A few times.” he replied. “We didn’t even have running water at the time, and now they built a [Holocaust] museum in my little hometown! ”When asked whether he maintained a sense of hope in the concentration camp, he replied: “Absolutely! Hope then was not about a better world, but a better soup the next day.”
The museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield, gave welcoming remarks. A video presentation of the multigenerational Halpern, Pantirer, Pines and Schwartz families offered cameos of these remarkable Holocaust Museum founders — survivors of concentration camps and ghettos who instilled in their children and grandchildren the importance of memory. Their descendants and relatives now carry on the successful enterprises the survivors launched. The dinner journal notes that Murray Pantirer spent part of the war “under the protection of Oskar Schindler in his factory” and was No. 205 on Schindler’s now famous list. He and his uncle Isak Levenstein, who also survived thanks to the list, “were determined to keep alive the name of the man who save them and the 1,400 other Jews by naming a street in Schindler’s honor in every one of their real estate developments.”
“I have my three Stars [of David],” a very emotional Kingsley told the 600-strong multigenerational assembly of museum boosters. “One for Simon [Wiesenthal], one for Otto [Frank] and one for Itzhak [Stern]. Let us tell tales so as not to allow the executioner to have the last word. The last word belongs to the victim.”
Then Wiesel spoke: “Forgetfulness is not an option.[ If at all, there is a chance for humanity to redeem itself — if only through memory. Whom do we remember first? How many candles should one light to remember a vanished community?”
With nary a clink of silverware or china, the guests sat in rapt silence as Wiesel articulated his ever-ongoing inner dialogue: “Who would have thought that with Auschwitz in our memory, 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?”
After a pause, he continued: As long as we remember, they will not change us. We shall still believe. We believe in our history. We believe in our mission in the world…. We believe that the enemy did not succeed totally, and we believe that it is always up to us in our daily lives and especially 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 almost what I would write as a slogan for all those who enter the gates of the museum. The virtue of gratitude belongs to the Jewish people. No other people has [a AS]many prayers and blessings of gratitude as ours. So we must be grateful to each other tonight for the mission that we have accepted as a guide to our life. Thank you.”