On May 6, John Jay College of Criminal Justice presented the John Jay Medal for Justice to Elie Wiesel, author, humanitarian, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, in a luminary-filled ceremony at the College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater.
“We at John Jay are humbled and grateful to present this award,” said John Jay President Jeremy Travis. He noted that Wiesel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, has focused his life’s work on “the greatest of humanity’s concerns, the cause of peace.”
President Travis went on to read a congratulatory letter received from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke of her admiration for Wiesel’s “compassion, strength, empathy and resolve.”
The special ceremony included dramatic readings by award-winning stage, film and television actors Sir Patrick Stewart and James Earl Jones. Stewart read a passage from Wiesel’s “masterpiece” first book, Night, in which Wiesel describes his family’s arrival at the Birkenau concentration camp in May 1944. Jones offered a selection from Wiesel’s Nobel lecture, in which he referenced the Talmudic admonition that “by saving a single human being, we can save the world.”
Following a video by Shachar Langlev that thoughtfully examined Wiesel’s life and impact, the introduction of the evening’s honoree was done by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer of the United States Supreme Court, who himself received a standing ovation as he took the stage. Breyer observed that justice is a basic value that one finds constant reminders of in Wiesel’s extensive writing. “Those of us who study the rule of law stand with Elie,” the Justice said.
Wiesel, now 85, was just 15 years old when he and his family were imprisoned by the Nazis. The month of May, he recalled, “is always full of memories” for him. As he recalled his teen-age years, Wiesel said the fact that the people in his small hometown in Romania didn’t know what was going on with respect to the Holocaust is a source of anger and anguish for him. “Why didn’t we know?” he mused. “Why didn’t the leaders of the free world get on the radio and say ‘Don’t get on the train!’”
There are so many lessons to be learned from the experience of the Holocaust, Wiesel said, and just as many questions that go unanswered. “How does one teach the real truth of what happened in my lifetime?” he asked.
“I cannot tell you how much it means to be here tonight,” Wiesel said. “Thank you for bringing back all the reasons in the world to go on living with a smile on my face.”
The event, which was under the artistic direction of Caroline Stoessinger, Artist-in-Residence at John Jay, also included musical performances by renowned soprano Jessye Norman, violinist Gil Shaham, pianist Akira Euguchi, the Amphion String Quartet featuring clarinetist Anthony McGill, bass baritone Simon Estes, and the Mozart Academy Ensemble.
Created in 2008, the Justice Award honors world, national and local leaders for their dedication to the cause of justice. Previous winners have included the Honorable Judith Kaye, Chief Judge of the State of New York (retired); Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland; Atlanta attorney BJ Bernstein; the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University; Leymah Gbowee, Liberian peace activist who later won a Nobel Peace Prize; the Innocence Project; the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project; Sunitha Krishnan, founder and president of Prajwala; Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund; Sheriff Thomas J. Dart of Cook County, Illinois; Dr. Hawa Abdi, Somali human rights activist; Harry Belafonte, actor, musician and civil rights activist; and Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship.
The Justice Award ceremony is made possible by the generous support of Anne Beane Rudman, a Trustee of the John Jay College Foundation.