Wallenberg winner reflects on Holocaust experience

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By Emilie Plesset, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 30, 2014

Nearly 1000 members of the University and Ann Arbor community gathered at Rackham Auditorium Monday evening to celebrate Agnes Heller, internationally recognized philosopher and Holocaust survivor. She presented the Wallenberg Lecture and received the Wallenberg Medal.

Heller’s philosophy focuses on the role of morality and ethics in the modern world and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of evil. She and her mother avoided deportation during the Holocaust, though her father was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp and died before the end of World War II.

Although she was briefly a member of the Communist party between 1947 and 1949 Heller advocated for self-determination during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and was exiled after the 1968 Prague Spring. While in exile she taught philosophy in New York and Australia. Since her retirement in 2009, she has moved back to Hungary.

The University Raoul Wallenberg Medal Ceremony is sponsored by the Wallenberg Endowment in recognition of Raoul Wallenberg, a University student in the early 1930s who rescued around 100,000 Jews in Budapest during World War II. The medal is annually awarded to someone who embodies Wallenberg’s courage and dedication to humanitarian values. Past recipients of the award include Elie Wiesel, Miep Gies and Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Instead of presenting a lecture on the podium, Heller broke with tradition and chose to have a conversation with Judaic Studies Chair Scott Spector, who is also professor of history, German and Germanic Languages and Literature.

During much of the conversation, Heller reflected on her experiences during the Holocaust and Hungary under Soviet control and how those periods influenced her work. She said philosophy is an expression of experiences.

“I had the experiences of totalitarianism and the Holocaust,” Heller said. “When I started to write, these two experiences inspired me to think about ethics.”

Heller also discussed her thoughts on higher education. She criticized the high cost of the European and American university system and the persistent idea that a university education is the sole path in gaining knowledge and becoming successful.

“Sometimes in the universities people are not encouraged to think with their own mind,” Heller said. “When there are 100 students in a class, you cannot teach them as individuals.”

John Godfrey, assistant dean for International Education in the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, said Heller is a remarkable speaker and a passionate individual.

“She has always been dogged and fearless and persistent in her fundamental inquiry in morality of good and evil in the modern world,” said John Godfrey, assistant dean for International Education in the Rackham School of Graduate Studies. “She has always spoken out against repression and efforts to distinguish free and open inquiry. She is a remarkable intellectual of extraordinary accomplishments and enormous personal resilience.”

When the floor was opened for questions, Heller walked off the stage to stand next to the students lined up at the microphone so she could answer them directly.

“I thought it was a master class on teaching,” Godfrey said. “Her absolute direct and honest engagement with the questions and the students who asked questions was profoundly moving. She’s utterly fearless and she showed how important courage is in the classroom.”