My Jewish Background
July 13, 1997 — Jewish Museum, Prague, Czech Republic
I have visited the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague a number of times before. I have always been struck by its serene beauty and its importance as a symbol of the richness and the antiquity of Jewish life here.
For a long time, the Pinkas Synagogue was closed. The first time I went into the Synagogue was one year ago along with the First Lady, Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At that time, I was deeply moved by the thousands of names carved on the wall. But because I did not know my own family story then, it didn’t occur to me to look for the names of my grandparents or other family members.
Tonight, I knew to look for those names — and their image will forever be seared into my heart. Many have written about the horror of the Holocaust, and I have grown up thinking about it, speaking about it and trying to incorporate its lessons into my work.
Now that I am aware of my own Jewish background — and the fact that my grandparents died in concentration camps — the evil of the Holocaust has an even more personal meaning for me, and I feel an even greater determination to ensure that it will never be forgotten.
As I stood looking at that melancholy wall, all the walls, I not only grieved for those members of my family whose names were inscribed there, but I also thought about my parents.
I thought about the choice they made. They clearly confronted the most excruciating decision a human being can face when they left members of their family behind even as they saved me from certain death.
I will always love and honor my parents and will always respect their decision, for that most painful of choices gave me life a second time.
Identity is a complex compilation of influences and experiences — past and present. I have always felt that my life has been strengthened and enriched by my heritage and my past. And I have always felt that my life story is also the story of the evil of totalitarianism and the turbulence of 20th century Europe.
To the many values and many facets that make up who I am, I now add the knowledge that my grandparents and members of my family perished in the worst catastrophe in human history.
So I leave here tonight with the certainty that this new part of my identity adds something stronger, sadder and richer to my life.