By: Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn
Published: Des Moines Register 7/6/16
Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and powerful conscience to the world for seven decades, who devoted his life to ensuring that future generations would "never... forget," died this past Fourth of July weekend at age 87.
While Wiesel is not associated with global food security, I mention his name as part of every tour I give of our World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. This occurs when standing in front of the portrait of our founder Dr. Norman Borlaug, I point to the bronze replicas of Borlaug's three most significant medals: the Nobel Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
And, then I tell visitors that in all the 240 year history of the United States, only three Americans have ever received these three highest awards: Norman Borlaug, the Iowa farm boy who became Father of the Green Revolution; Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. the iconic civil rights hero and martyr; and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.
I had an extraordinary and unexpected opportunity to hear Wiesel speak when I accompanied Dr. Borlaug to Norway in December, 2001 for the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize. It was early on Sundaymorning when, beset with jet lag and unable to sleep, I decided to go walking in downtown Oslo.
The center city was devoid of people and so I meandered rather aimlessly past unremarkable modern buildings, staring into store windows. But, then I heard the distant tolling of church bells, and was drawn toward that sound until eventually a gothic style, red brick church came into view. It would have looked very much at home in many of the eastern Iowa towns near where I grew up in Dubuque.
Curious about religious practices, I have on other trips sat in the back of churches and temples in places like Hanoi, Katmandu and Moscow, so I slipped into the church and sat alone in the back pew of what I learned was the Lutheran cathedral of Oslo. The Bishop was leading the service with prayers spoken in Norwegian. She then began to give what I thought was the sermon also in her native language. Not understanding any of the words, I began to think about leaving to head back to our hotel to join Dr. Borlaug for breakfast.
But then, the Bishop switched to English and told the congregation that this morning their church had a special guest, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel and his wife. Riveted by this announcement, I sat back down with my eyes fixed on the pulpit to which she had invited him to come and to address the assembled congregants.
What he said is indelibly etched in my memory and motivates everything I do at the World Food Prize in carrying forward Dr. Borlaug's legacy.
Wiesel spoke powerfully of how for many, many years his wife and he could never have joined a gathering of Christians such as this, because Christians had done such horrific things to his people. However, he continued, over time they had come to see that not all Christians should be considered responsible for what was done in Germany. And so now Wiesel stated they, Jews, could come to this service and join with you Christians in singing.
Then Wiesel concluded with the statement that I have carried with me ever since. He said:
"I believe people who can stand together and sing together, can live in peace together."
It was so simple and yet so powerful. For people divided by religious, racial, ethnic, national, political or diplomatic differences, if you could find some shared experience, some shared accomplishment that would cause two peoples to stand together and cheer together or sing together, it could produce a bond or a connection that could bridge the gulf that separates them.
Eleven years later in October 2012, I saw Wiesel's dictum played out in the Iowa State Capitol as we presented the World Food Prize to Dr. Daniel Hillel, the Jewish Israeli irrigation pioneer, who had been nominated by Arab scientists from three Muslim countries. With the Secretary General of the United Nations participating in presenting our award (called by many the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture), in the audience standing and cheering together were a Muslim royal family member, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein of Dubai, an Arab Sheikh from Qatar, an Israeli diplomat and Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists from 60 countries.
Norman Borlaug demonstrated that confronting hunger could bring people together across great differences such as his work in India and Pakistan in the 1960s when the two countries were engaged in hostilities. Iowa has a rich history of such examples of building bridges between adversaries through agriculture, such Soviet Premiere Khrushchev's visit to the Garst Farm and the Yamanashi Hog Lift, both in 1959. But no one ever more powerfully articulated that lesson than Elie Wiesel in the Lutheran Cathedral of Oslo in December 2001