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Presentation of the Jan Karski Award to Per Ahlmark, Sweden

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Presentation of the Jan Karski Award to Per Ahlmark, Sweden

May 5, 2004 - 

Presentation of the Jan Karski Award
to
Per Ahlmark

by
David A. Harris
Executive Director, American Jewish Committee

98th Annual Meeting
American Jewish Committee
Washington, D.C., May 5, 2004

This occasion gives me double pleasure.

First, Jan Karski was one of my heroes, and I'm thrilled that we have a new award in his memory.

I knew Jan Karski quite well. Indeed, I was asked to give a eulogy at the Polish Embassy here in Washington on the day of his funeral.

Permit me to quote from my remarks.

"Jan Karski—son of Poland, son of the Catholic Church, and son of the human family—devoted his life, indeed risked his life again and again, so that the cries of Polish Jews during World War II would not go unheard.

"This courier of courage took to the world community—to presidents and prime ministers, to foreign ministers and supreme court justices, to famous writers and Jewish leaders—his eyewitness accounts of the systematic extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.

"Many found his stories of gruesome activities in the ghettos and camps hard, even impossible, to believe, but Jan Karski told them and retold them to anyone who would listen.

"Jan Karski modestly referred to himself as a 'human tape recorder,' replaying the messages he was asked to deliver. In actuality, he was a trumpet; a man who heralded the harsh tones of human indifference and cruelty so loudly that no one could deny hearing them, while at the same time personifying the softest melodies that make up the indomitable spirit and inherent goodness that mankind can still possess."

It is for Jan Karski's remarkable courage;

his lifelong commitment to combating evil, first Nazism, later Communism;

his friendship for the Jewish people and his unwavering dedication to the struggle against anti-Semitism until his last breath four years ago;

his love of the State of Israel, which was so evident to those of us who heard him speak when we honored him in 1993;

and his determination again and again to bear witness to the darkest moment in human history;

that we have named this award for him.

May we always cherish the memory of Jan Karski as near to our hearts as he cradled the souls of the millions of Jews he never knew but tried to rescue.

I can think of no one more worthy of being the first recipient of this prestigious award than Per Ahlmark.

No one I know comes closer to embodying the spirit, the courage, and the commitment of Jan Karski than our honoree today.

Per Ahlmark has been a prominent political personality in his native land of Sweden, rising to serve as Member of Parliament, Leader of the Swedish Liberal Party, Minister of Labor, and Deputy Prime Minister.

He has been an equally well-known author of several widely discussed books, most recently It's the democracy, stupid, which came out last month, not to mention being a columnist in Sweden's leading newspapers for decades as well as an author of three books of poetry and a novel.

But what's most impressive about this man is not what he is but who he is.

Per Ahlmark, you see, has devoted his life, his every waking moment to the very same values that defined Jan Karski.

He has stood with Israel in ways too numerous to enumerate. He has visited the country more than 70 times. When Israelis feared missile attacks from Saddam Hussein's Iraq last year and began preparing gas masks, Per Ahlmark boarded a plane for Israel and spent weeks in the country because, he said, that was the only place in the world he wanted to be at that perilous time. That was quintessential Per Ahlmark.

As you know, in today's Europe it is not exactly fashionable, to say the least, to stand up and defend Israel, but that's exactly what Per Ahlmark has done repeatedly and effectively across the length and breadth of his country, and far beyond as well.

He has spoken out, again and again, on the danger of resurgent anti-Semitism. He has also not hesitated to confront those who use anti-Zionism as a convenient mask for anti-Semitism. Indeed, he has warned that if the Nazis sought a world that was Judenrein, then the modern anti-Semites seek a world that is, in the first place, Judenstaatrein, free of a Jewish state.

Ladies and gentlemen, democracy has no more determined friend, and tyranny no fiercer enemy than our honoree today.

Per Ahlmark has stood foursquare in defense of human rights, whether for Soviet Jews or Bosnian Muslims, and in unflinching opposition to those in the international community who would practice double standards or selective moral indignation.

Fortunately for us at the American Jewish Committee, Per Ahlmark has channeled some of his seemingly limitless energy through United Nations Watch, the Geneva-based NGO founded by the late Ambassador Morris Abram to hold the UN to the noble standards of its own Charter. He is co-chair of this AJC affiliate.

Read his writings to get a feel for this truly remarkable man. Not all of them, you'll be pleased to know, are in Swedish. Some are in English.

Or better yet, sit back now and listen to this brave man with a mission and a message, who flew from Stockholm to be with us today.

Take in the profound wisdom of his words, feel his deep passion, admire the unflinching courage of his convictions, and observe the friendship for the Jewish people and Israel that oozes out of every pore of his skin.

Like Jan Karski, Per Ahlmark is the real thing—that all too rare righteous individual. To the Jewish people, he's an authentic hero of our age and, believe me, I don't use the word "hero" lightly.

In these trying times, I miss Jan Karski, but I'm ever so grateful that Per Ahlmark is here and by our side.

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the American Jewish Committee, it is now my privilege to present the first Jan Karski Award to a moral giant, a profile in courage, and, not least, a dear friend, Per Ahlmark.