Hans and sophie scholl award 2008 - david grossman

Acceptance speech david grossman

Shalom and good evening.
First of all I would like to express my thanks to the members of jury who found me worthy of the Geschwister Scholl Prize, my publishers and editors in Germany, my translators into German, my friends who traveled to Munich from far to be with me this evening. I would like to welcome Professor Dr. Huber, Rector of the university, Mr. Ude, Mayor of Munich, Mr. Eggert, Chairman of the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers – the National Association of Bavaria and the city of Munich, Dr. Salamander who made the introductory remarks and of course all of you, venerated ladies and gentlemen.

I am deeply moved to receive this prize in memory of Sophie and Hans Scholl. I would like to devote a few short minutes to explain why this prize is so important and significant for me.
A few years ago, a Jewish man, not a young one, told me this story: One day in his youth, in Vilna, which was then already under Nazi occupation, he was playing football with his friends in a schoolyard. The boys in the game were Jews and Christians, and the game was intense and exciting. Suddenly, loudspeakers throughout the city blared out that an aktzia was in progress.
Moments later, German soldiers charged into the schoolyard and rounded up the Jewish boys. An hour after that, they were on a freight train heading for their deaths. As the train went through the city, it passed by the schoolyard. The boys looked through the cracks in their boxcar and saw that their friends were still playing football.
That’s a little story, and not a particularly dramatic one. In those days, we all know, many more horrible events occurred. Nevertheless, I have not been able to forget it. More than anything else, it tells me about one of the most sophisticated and dubious human faculties—the ability to decide not to know what is really going on next to you. Not to take stock of it. Simply to close your eyes and carry on, as if nothing has happened.

Today you are awarding me this honorable prize, named after two young people who made a difficult, hugely risky decision—not to close their eyes. Not to carry on as if nothing were happening. Quite the opposite: they decided to see everything. They walked through the world as if their eyelids had been removed, and they took stock of what they saw.
Seeing it, they dared to call it by name. They called murder—murder, evil—evil, and madness—madness. They refused to make use of the language and thought processes fashioned for them by the regime and the army and the press and a huge propaganda apparatus and the entire zeitgeist. At their trial, the presiding judge of the people’s court asked them how they explained their actions, and Sophie Scholl responded with her simple, lucid innocence: “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”
They made a start. They were very brave people. I do not know whether any one of us, here in this room, would be capable of doing what they did. I do not know if I could do what they did. I do not know if I would have the courage to be so different, so alone, so true to myself within a society—within an entire nation—that thought and acted differently. I want to believe that I would, but I would be lying if I said that I am certain.

I wrote See Under: Love, a novel about the Shoah, the Holocaust, in part in an effort to respond to this very same question: How would I have behaved had I lived in those times? Would I have dared, would I have been capable, of remaining myself in such a violent, total, powerful vortex? Of course, I first asked myself how I would have behaved as a Jew. As one stripped of all that was dear to him, and who himself is designated for annihilation. How would I try—and would I have the strength?—to preserve my selfhood, the spark of humanity within me, in a situation in which all had been arranged to obliterate me from the earth, and from everyone’s awareness?
But there was another question on my mind when I wrote See Under: Love. Had I been a German in those times, would I have been capable of withstanding that storm that swept away nearly the entire German nation? Would I have been able to find within me the antibodies to the chauvinistic, racist, violent fever that overcame an entire society? Would I have managed to discern, in real time, that parts of me were beginning to collaborate with the sophisticated mechanisms put into operation by the regime? These were aimed at inducing more or less regular, mentally balanced people, ones who were moral to a reasonable degree, to divest themselves of their capacity for independent thinking, their free will, and the universal moral values according to which they had previously lived.
My dear friends, I find it difficult to address Germans about the Holocaust. I almost always feel that I am unable to say precisely what I seek to express. There is always a slight distortion—caused by oversensitivity, or overstatement. Sometimes, instead of expressing my personal pain, I find myself speaking as a “representative.” I am endlessly suspicious of myself, and check to see if I am not, even unintentionally, being emotionally manipulative where absolute precision is essential. I know, for example, how insulted I feel when I think about what occurred in the Holocaust. Less than anger or hatred or the desire for revenge; rather, I feel indignant and insulted that such things were done to human beings.

And I know that feeling insulted can, more than any other emotion, immobilize a person and send him into a defeated, bitter sullenness that itself can humiliate the person who feels it.
And here, the case of Sophie and Hans Scholl and their fellow-members of the Weisse Rose underground enables me, and perhaps not just me, to speak about what happened here, in Munich, and in Germany and in Europe, without getting trapped in feeling that I have been insulted.
The Scholls and their friends formed a tiny and daring underground cell in defiance of an overwhelming reality of silence, of willful blindness. It was an exceptional act, yet it clearly highlights a fact that is all so simple, yet so hard to act on: that in nearly every situation we retain a modicum of free will; that even in a place where despotism rules, each and every person still has some way of defining himself in a different, independent way. And by doing so, he can free himself from the total domination of the system.

Despotism and tyranny, and the way people cope with them, preoccupy me in all my writing. Nearly every book I have written represents an attempt—or a wish—to create clandestine “cells” of free will, of uniqueness and idiosyncrasy in the very heart of despotism, intimidation, and alienation. The characters I create almost always struggle within some sort of rigid, apathetic, unresponsive apparatus, whether it is the humiliating reality of military occupation, or the way we all learn to adapt to the primal despotism that we encounter as human beings—the tyranny of the body, and the way that our souls, which seem at first to be free, flexible, and infinite, are compelled to adjust to the physical, obtuse, impassive dimension of our being, to the complicated bureaucracy of the body.
In some of my books, in particular the most recent one, Until the End of the Land, which will come out in Germany next year as well as in Die Kraft zur Korrektur, I have attempted to describe, among other things, the reality of life in Israel today, the danger of surrendering to fears and hopelessness that our lengthy conflict with the Arab countries has brought about. I wanted to describe the huge effort it takes to protect the delicate, intimate, vulnerable family within such brutal and violent circumstances.

When we look today at Israelis—and Palestinians—we can see how the despotism of “the situation” in which they are trapped seeps into the innermost recesses of both peoples. For decades they live within a rigid system, in an almost automatic apparatus of strike and counter-strike, of despair and anxiety and, immediately afterwards, short-lived euphoria. We can see how all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, have become prisoners of a situation in which, day by day, we have less freedom of action, less freedom of thought, less freedom of will.


I have been writing for thirty years now, and I learned long ago: each time I write about a struggle with despotism of one sort or another, I rediscover that in describing as precisely as I can the relationship between the individual human being and that despotism, something within me changes. Something inside me is redeemed. If I am a bit more adamant about portraying the details, better capturing feelings precisely, getting at the finest nuances of this struggle, if I write in a new way, in my own words, within a situation that ossifies around me—I progress one more millimeter into a void that had just beforehand seemed impassible and immutable.
Not that I have found a better way of living in peace with the contradictions of the body and the soul. Not that I have really understood how a human being is capable of expunging his self to the point that he becomes a cog in a machine of annihilation. And if I were to produce a minutely precise depiction of the injustices of military occupation, the occupation would not end. But my internal position with regard to that which cannot be changed—it itself changes. From the moment I begin to write, I no longer stand before despotism—despotism of any kind—in the same place I was stuck before I began writing. Circumstances that seemed eternal, absolute, set in stone—decreed by heaven or by man—now reveal nuances I had not seen before. I have created a degree of freedom of movement relative to them. I have been emancipated from that which had previously paralyzed me in fear and despair. I am no longer a victim.

For me, as a Jew, as an Israeli, as the person I am today, with all that I have been through, and with all that I have undergone during the last few years, the feeling that I am not a victim, that I do not have to be a victim of any despotism, is perhaps the most comforting reward I receive from writing.

“Allen Gewalten zum Trotz sich erhalten” (“Despite the violent forces against us, we must overcome”) is, as I’m sure you know, a line from a poem by Goethe that Hans Scholl’s father used to read him when he was a boy. They were the words that Hans scrawled with a pencil on the wall of his prison cell a few minutes before he was taken to his death.
Even if Hans and Sophie and their comrades were murdered in the end by the system that ruled then, in the deepest sense they were not its victims. Within a reality of all-encompassing tyranny, they determined for themselves their laws, their principles, and their values. In a place and in a time in which tens of millions of people together roared “we,” they said: “I.”
Can you imagine any courage, and freedom, greater than that?

I thank you for having found me worthy of receiving a prize bearing their names.


Translation from Hebrew © Haim Watzman


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