An essay by SGI President Daisaku Ikeda from a series based on his meetings with inspiring individuals from around the world

Rabbi Marvin Hier--The Courage to Remember

Rabbi Hier (center) meeting Mr. Ikeda at the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance (January 31, 1993)

Passing through the rotunda of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance, Rabbi Hier, the Center’s Founder and Dean, pointed to a small notebook in a glass case. "This poem is in Anne Frank's own handwriting," he said. "She wrote it for a friend when she was only 10 years old."

Dearest Henny,
It is only a small thing
But I give it to you
The roses that bloom in the meadow
And a handful of forget-me-nots.

The open book shows pictures of flower baskets on each page. From the flower basket on the left, a dove takes flight with a letter in its bill.

The story of Anne Frank is well-known: how, with other members of her family, she was forced to live confined in the attic of a building in wartime Amsterdam for two years, until they were discovered and arrested by the Gestapo. She was sent to a concentration camp where she died in 1945, just days before the liberation of the camp by British forces. She was only 15.

Forget-me-not: The name of the flower that Anne wished to send her friend was a plea not to be forgotten. But who could forget her? Who can forget the millions who died in the Holocaust?

Rabbi Marvin Hier founded the Simon Wiesenthal Center, vowing that those slaughtered in the Holocaust would never be forgotten.

It has not been an easy task. People tend to want to forget. Not only those who perpetrated the evil but its victims as well. As Rabbi Hier points out, "Memory is fragile and pliable. And that is why, if we do not persist on our course, if we are not faithful to memory, then one day no one will believe that the eerie sounds of those trains once delivered millions of unsuspecting men, women and children to the death camps."

The Nazis murdered six million Jews. They ripped babies from their mothers' arms and flung them to their deaths; they used children as guinea pigs in appalling medical experiments; they herded people into gas chambers; and as life became increasingly callous, Nazi guards shot prisoners just to "let off steam." They spread false rumors about the Jews, the victims of their atrocities, denouncing them as brutal and inhumane, morally corrupt, the dregs of humanity. Everything that was most true of the Nazis themselves, they ascribed to the Jews. These repeated lies acted like poison that, drop by drop, penetrated the hearts and minds of the German people, paralyzing their senses. Eventually, people were so transformed that they accepted without question the most evil of deeds.

Rabbi Hier is committed to perpetuating the struggle of Simon Wiesenthal, after whom the center is named. Himself a survivor of the death camps, Wiesenthal has been dedicated to bringing to justice Nazi war criminals who went into hiding after the war. Wiesenthal has been motivated solely by his duty as a survivor. Justice is his motive, not hatred or revenge.

"Without Simon Wiesenthal," writes Rabbi Hier, "the subject of the Holocaust would not really receive serious attention anywhere in the world . . . There was a long time between 1945 and the early 60s: a crucial period when there was the greatest pressure to forget."

The denial was remarkable. Some members of the older generation in Germany and Austria intentionally spread lies about the past, claiming that Anne Frank's diary was a fake and that the "so-called" gas chambers were only for the purpose of disinfecting prisoners' clothing. Their influence was so potent that in 1958, youthful demonstrators interrupted a stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank in Linz, Austria, distributing leaflets with the message: "This play is a fraud. Anne Frank never existed. The Jews have invented the whole story because they want to extort more restitution money."

Later, Simon Wiesenthal wrote of this event: "These young rowdies were not guilty; their parents and teachers were. The older people were trying to poison the minds of the young generation because they wanted to justify their own dubious past. Many of them were trapped by their heritage of ignorance, hatred and bigotry. They hadn't learned anything from history."

Wiesenthal's life has been dedicated to the belief that "Hope lives when people remember." Rabbi Hier's work proclaims, "Hope lives as long as we do not remain silent."

Beneath an intelligent and urbane manner, a fierce anger against evil and injustice burns in Rabbi Hier's heart. Whenever he hears anti-Semitic propaganda, he springs onto the offensive immediately. He rebuts it, demands an apology and widely publicizes the truth, using every method at his command to cut off the poisonous weed of hate at the root.

To teach the importance of human rights, Rabbi Hier established the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance. I visited the museum on January 31, 1993. Rabbi Hier graciously showed me around the facility, even though he was very busy preparing for its official opening early the following month. There were models of Auschwitz and a ghetto where countless Jews were massacred. The many photographs and audiovisual footage gave voice and identity to their now silent subjects. Who could ever forget these tragic events? Who could fail to be enraged by them?

Yet around the same time as I made my visit, books and weekly tabloids were still being published in Japan that talked of the "international conspiracy of the Jews"--the same ridiculous lies that were once spread by the Nazis. The victims of the persecution were being attacked and painted as its perpetrators. Such is the deplorable insensitivity to human rights that exists in Japan to this day.

The lies about the Holocaust are not unlike the lies still told in Japan, claiming that the Nanjing Massacre, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese were senselessly slaughtered, never took place. In the same way that the Nazis tried to establish the Aryan race as a chosen people, the Japanese militarists called Japan the "Land of the Gods." The belief that there is a divine people always entails the creation of the lie that there are inferior peoples. For the Nazis, these were the Jews and the Gypsies, and for the Japanese military, the Koreans and the Chinese. These lies resulted in the cruel slaughter by the Nazi and Japanese military forces.

Those who deny that Auschwitz or the Nanjing Massacre ever happened are murdering the victims all over again. And keeping Japan's young people in the dark by failing to teach them the truth about history is far more shameful than having to face and come to terms with our own shameful past. [1]

From my meeting with Rabbi Hier emerged the project of bringing the exhibition "The Courage to Remember: Anne Frank and the Holocaust" on a tour of major Japanese cities. The exhibition touched the lives of more than a million people around Japan. In a speech at the exhibition's Hiroshima opening, Rabbi Hier called on people to speak out loudly and clearly for human rights, in every area of the globe where those rights are being violated or threatened.

The Museum of Tolerance

He also proposed a series of lectures to be held at the Simon Wiesenthal Center to make others aware of the unsung heroes of human rights around the world, to be entitled "The Makiguchi Memorial Human Rights Lecture Series." This choice of title is a tribute to the fact that Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, first president of the Soka Gakkai, fought to protect people's fundamental human rights from the oppressive forces of Japanese militarism and died in prison for those convictions.

When I was invited to give the first lecture in the series in June 1996, I closed my speech with the following poem:

It is my belief--
that only those individuals or peoples
who embrace a noble philosophy,
upholding sublime faith;
only those individuals or peoples
who, amidst raging storms,
live out the drama
of reality and grand ideals;
only those individuals or peoples
who have been subjected
to limitless persecution and have endured;
only these individuals or peoples
will be bathed in the sunlight
of perpetual joy, glory and victory.

In my heart, I called out to the millions in Europe and in Asia who had been trampled beneath lies and violence: We will never forget. We will fight for the truth to be known.

For, as Rabbi Hier has said, "A world without a past . . . is a world without a future."

[1] Debate is currently heated in Japan over the publication of history textbooks which play down or deny the reality of wartime atrocities committed by Japanese forces.