Elie Wiesel Speech at Salem Tercentenary, 1992
Mayor Harrington, Mr. Williams and friends,
When I was invited to come here and speak to you about the Salem trials, about the witches of Salem, I was wondering why me? It’s not my field. My field is the Bible, philosophy, literature, not history. Surely not this aspect of history but I was a good student and I accepted. I became grateful, too. I began studying the subject and for the last three or four weeks I did nothing else. I read everything about the event. And then I realized that there are so many things I didn’t know. Do I know now? That is the question.
In fact, 300 years ago certain things happened here and we still wonder, how are we to comprehend the violent passions and tragic events that shook up this community? A community that you, Mr. Mayor, termed, rightly, a community devoted to “shalom,” “salam,” Salem, peace.
Were there witches in Salem? If the answer is yes the reactions to them may be understandable. Doesn’t scripture command us to leave no witch alive? Once you study the law you wonder why such biblical and blind harshness towards witches? Why not towards wizards? Why this sexism in the bible? Then you are wondering also what is it about a witch, what was it that inspired such entitleism [sic], such fear? Why were they afraid of the so-called witches? Is it because the witch invokes a power which is not the power we invoke when we want to believe in the divine? Is it because a witch is supposedly using certain links that she had, might have had, with the unholy forces, with the devil, with Satan? If so, why are we more jealous than God? Let God take care of Satan. And if He doesn’t, why are we so cruel with Satan’s so-called followers?
Now the questions are many others have been explored by many writers. And I am sure that all of the books, I hope the manuscripts as well, are magnificent rich archives in this town written. But you will not find the answer. In truth, there is no answer. I don’t know today why 300 years ago a wind of madness was blowing over your community. What was it about? In a way it reads like a Kafka novel. Every Kafka novel begins with a small banal incident. It always begins, let’s say, like in The Trial Joseph K gets up in the morning and says good morning to the landlady who doesn’t answer. And e says because she didn’t answer it means I have done something wrong. If I’ve done something wrong that means I’m guilty. If I’m guilty I’ll be arrested. If I’ll be arrested I’ll be judged. If I’ll be judged I’ll be condemned. Of course I’ll be condemned to death. It begins with a good morning and it ends with death. Here it begins with 2 girls, Abigail and Betty, Elizabeth, nine year old and eleven year old. Now, it begins with they have nothing to do that afternoon. Why didn’t they take care of their little sisters? Why didn’t they help other children with homework? Why didn’t they go swimming? Or why didn’t they show some interest in international affairs: what was happening in London, the romance of the queen? They had nothing to do and because they had nothing to do they got into trouble. And when they got into trouble other people died. Now, I believe because of these childish fantasies tragedy occurred. What does it teach us? First of all, remember, children should not always be left idle. They should always do something. Even in the summer. There’s always something they should do and they could do. I am especially bewildered by the fact that children played in this event. Children suggest innocence. Children suggest beauty, hope, purity. And these children did the opposite. They brought out the injustice [of] which every person is at one point capable. They brought out the hopelessness of the human being when faced with a crowd, with a mob. I didn’t understand why children became witches. Because the “witches” were not witches; the children were the witches. They saw in their hallucinations because they wanted to amuse themselves, divert themselves, they saw in other persons the devil, Satan. And it happened. What they saw was accepted by the adult world. That hurts. I would like children to be children. I also have problems with the community. How is it that the whole community lost its sense of reality? Here and there, yes, there were some people helped to try, not very hard. But all along the community was passive. And the community allowed the trials to take place.
Which brings me to a different problem I face when studying the material: in a way, everything was legal. It wasn’t a church trial, it was a secular trial. The lieutenant Governor presided over the trial. And when you are starting out the exhibit – again I urge you to go and see it – we have seen it, and then I learned even then of something from beginning to end it was a legal procedure. The indictment, the warrant of arrest and then torture. And then to torment, the isolation. The whole judicial process was a legal process. How is it possible for intelligent people to accept such a process? Is it because of the general climate? It was after all the end of the 17th Century. Many wars had hounded that century. Fanaticism was still prevailing in so many places. The church had its own problems. And, what I feel the important factor was that we were then coming to the end of a century. And whenever a century was nearing its decline, its end, history itself was shaking up, as it does now shake up. We have a feeling when we come to the end of a decade or a century, in our case it’s a millennium, history is moving to its very bowels to make them burst to bring everything to the surface and therefore everything goes so fast, very fast, too fast perhaps. Because history or the century want to go quicker to the end in order to get the leap of the phantasms of the demons that has dominated millions, hundreds of millions of people, men and women.
Is that the reason why for a few months everything was possible in Salem? For it was very fast. The hangings, that too was to me a surprise, in my collective memory, we are all inheriting part of collective memory, I thought that witches were burned. Here I learned that they were hanged. But it all went very fast from June to September: 19 or 20 people were hanged. It went fast. It came fast. But it also went away very fast. And that is, again, another source of astonishment for me. And this one is a positive astonishment. All of a sudden the winds subsided. All of a sudden the young, now teenaged girls had nothing to say. And when they spoke nobody listened to them. All of a sudden those who had been tried had been freed. Those who had been imprisoned had been released. Those who had been condemned were let go free. Why? Because, I believe, of a few individual persons. Because of one clergyman, and because of the successor of Paris, Green. They came, they managed to produce a metamorphosis in the community. And I read that with amazement and gratitude. Mr. Williams, yes on person can save the world. It’s so easy to save another human being.
We know in philosophy there are two absolutes: to bring life and to take it away. And both are so easy. Anyone can bring life. But anyone can eliminate it. It’s so easy to say to human being if only the person who is watching the injustice done to that human being had the humanity, the courage, the nobility to say I cannot let it happen. I just cannot.
There was a woman in Germany, in Berlin, a simple woman, a housewife – I’m not saying housewives are simple – but she was a simple housewife, and she saved some Jews during the war, during the whole war in Berlin, therefore they gave her a medal. There were many journalists there and they all asked her why did you do it? Where did you get the courage to do what you have done? And, why, why, why…? And she didn’t understand the questions. In the end she straightened herself up, and she said, “You want to know why I did it I will tell you. Because of self-respect.” It’s a matter of self-respect. To help someone who needs our help means self-respect. To fight racism means self-respect. To fight intolerance done to another means self-respect. And therefore when I read stories of Salem I find that the victims had a lot of self-respect. I am so embarrassed by the judges, I cannot tell you how. When I found out that the chief justice, the lieutenant governor later became governor after the trials. But what happened to the people in Salem, Massachusetts. He became Governor. He should have discredited himself from all (times?) to come. But he became governor. He had power. He didn’t give it up, didn’t relinquish it. I cannot tell you how sad I am when I think of those who accepted the verdict, but I’m proud of the victims who did not accept the verdict. Of those who said to the end, no. No! Your justice is not mine, your faith is not mine. And I go on claiming my right to humanity, which is my right to believe in the God that I believe in. What have we learned from that? That in times of inhumanity, humanity is still possible. Even when there is hatred around one and fight it. If I cannot fight the hatred all over the world at least I can fight hatred somewhere, in one person, in me. The key word, I’ve found, that is part of the vocabulary of the drama of tragedy, is fanaticism. It is because people were fanatic that Salem was possible. It is because a fanatic has it easy. It is so easy to believe that the children really saw the demon in the witch. It is so easy to believe that the chief justice spoke on behalf of justice. I believe fanaticism is there for the worst evil that existed then for it produced more evil. And fanaticism is the greatest evil that faces us today. For today, too, there are Salems. At least were.
In the 1930’s before all of you were born, the world was struck by the Moscow Trials. There were trials in Moscow. The greatest leaders of what used to be the Soviet Union, the companions of Lenin were accused of treason, of corruption, of anything you can imagine in the world of evil and they confessed. How did they confess? Those people who were heroes they resisted the Czar’s secret service, but didn’t resist Stalin’s secret service, and they all confessed. What were those trials if not witch trials?
May I skip a generation? What did Khomeini try to do if not to install a fanaticism of the scale of the nation and a religion and therefore we have Salman Rushdie condemned to death. Now I understand if the critics want to kill a writer, but not that way. And today to our great dismay and sadness there is a kind of nationalistic witchcraft in what used to be Yugoslavia. When we remember these victims here with pride and sadness and admiration we cannot not remember the victims of today and yesterday. They received freedom, what are they doing with it for God’s sake!? They are abusing their freedom and using it to spread hatred among each other against each other. Who would have believed that in what used to be Yugoslavia in the free Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sarajevo, my God Sarajevo, we are thinking about past and present. When I read in the beginning about Sarajevo in the newspapers I was wondering, “Maybe am I dreaming?” Sarajevo belongs to the first world war, not to today. It came back into the news, and what are they, they Serbs, doing? Opening concentration camps, death camps, putting people into boxcars? Killing them? Summary executions. Why, because they are Muslims? Or Croatians? What is happening to this world? What bothers me even more is our leaders here in this country and other countries who should know better are not doing whey they should do. I believe we must stop death killing!
Have you seen the children on a bus, two children were killed in the bus for going through the border. Have you seen the funeral of these children yesterday, in the cemetery, being shelled by the Serbs. The absurdity is so cruel that one cannot take it anymore. I suggest that if President Bush was capable of organizing an alliance against Iraq he should be capable too of organizing a new alliance. And I would like the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly and all people of good will, all people of morality to come out with a proclamation saying that those perpetrators and their leaders, political or military, if they do not stop for to it will be accused of crimes against humanity. In conclusion my good friends, what we have seen here today is a lesson not about the past only, but also about the present. That whenever a person or a group of persons come and say that they are superior to another group because of their color, race or religion, they will create upheavals with bloodshed accompanying them. With innocence becoming the first victim. For when people are unjustly accused, when people are unjustly imprisoned, when people, men or women or children – for God’s sake I cannot forget that one of those in prison was four years old, with chains – when children are victimized, humiliated, that means there’s something wrong with our society. And indeed you chose well the fourth word, “Memory.” It’s all that we remember that we will be worthy of redemption. Thank you.