ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Weizmann Institute of Science
Chicago Hilton, Chicago, Illinois
Thursday, October 22, 1998
Dinner Establishing the Betty and Leo Melamed Scholarship in
Twentieth Century, my father told me before his death, represented
a new low in the history of mankind. "The Holocaust," he said," was
an indelible blot on human conscience, one that could never be
my father always tempered his realism with a large dose of optimism.
He had, after all, against all odds, managed to save himself
and his immediate family from the inevitability of the gas chambers.
Were that not the case, this kid from Bialystok would not be
here to receive this incredible Weizmann Institute honor nor
tell his story. And quite a story it is!
don't mean simply the story of how my father snatched his wife
and son from the clutches of the Nazis. I don't mean simply the
story of how my parents outwitted both the Gestapo and the KGB
during a time in history when, in Humphry Bogart's words, "the
world didn't give a hill of beans about the lives of three people." I
don't mean simply the story of our race for freedom across Europe
and Siberia during a moment in history when the world had gone
quite mad. And I don't mean simply the story of Consul General
Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Oscar Schindler who chose to follow
the dictates of his God rather than those of his Foreign Office
and, in direct violation of their orders, issued life saving
transit visas to some 6000 Jews trapped in Lithuania - the Melamdoviches
among them. Six months later all us would have been machine-gunned
to death along with 10,000 others in Kovno.
I don't mean simply all of that, although all of that is a helluva
story. But there is yet another dimension to the story here.
I mean the story of the splendor of America! For it was here,
here in this land of the free and home of the brave that the
kid from Bialystok was given the opportunity to grow up on the
streets of Chicago, to climb the rungs of social order without
money or clout, and to use his imagination and skills so that
in a small way he could contribute to the growth of American
markets. In doing so he not only justified fate's decision to
spare his life, but more important, attested to the majesty of
within my story lies the essence of America, the fundamental
beauty of the United States Constitution and the genius of its
creators. For throughout the years, thru ups and downs, thru
defeats and victories, thru innovations which challenged sacred
market doctrines, and ideas which defied status quo, no one ever
questioned my right to dream, nor rejected my views simply because
I was an immigrant, without proper credentials, without American
roots, without wealth, without influence, or because I was a
Jew. Intellectual values always won out over provincial considerations,
rational thought always prevailed over irrational prejudice,
merit always found its way to the top. Say what you will, point
out the defects, protest the inequities, but at the end of the
day my story represents the real truth about America.
these reasons, after all was said and done, my parents were optimists.
They agreed, that in spite of the two World Wars, in spite of
the horrors and atrocities, the Twentieth Century was nevertheless
a most remarkable century. They watched the world go from the
horse and buggy--the main form of transportation at their birth
-- to Apollo Eleven which in 1969 took Neil Armstrong to the
it is hard to fathom that at the dawn of my parent's century,
Britannia was still the empire on which the sun never set; the
railroads were in their Golden Age, automobiles were considered
nothing but a fad, the phonograph was the most popular form of
home entertainment, and life expectancy for the American male
was but 48. Sigmund Freud first published his "Interpretation
of Dreams," and Albert Einstein, the foremost thinker of the
century, had just published his theory of relativity.
course, the event that would have the most profound effect on
the direction of our present century occurred back in 1848--smack
dab in the middle of the Nineteenth Century: Karl Marx and his
associate, Friedrich Engels, published the Communist Manifesto.
The concept of communism, would dominate the political thought
of Europe and later Asia for most of the Twentieth Century.
some 150 years after the concept was conceived, we know it to
have been an unmitigated failure. Indeed, those of us, citizens
of planet Earth, fortunate enough to be present in the final
decade of the Twentieth Century, have been privileged to witness
events equal to any celebrated milestone in the history of mankind.
In what seemed like a made for TV video, we were ring-side spectators
at a global rebellion. In less than an eye-blink the Berlin Wall
fell, Germany was unified, Apartheid ended, Eastern Europe was
liberated, the Cold War ceased, and a doctrine that impaired
the freedom of three generations and misdirected the destiny
of the entire planet for seven decades was decisively repudiated.
a magnificent triumph of democracy and freedom. What a glorious
victory for capitalism and free markets. What a majestic tribute
to Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, Abraham Lincoln, and Milton
Friedman. What a divine time to be alive. Surely these events
represented some of the defining moments of the Twentieth Century.
Ironically, the lynch-pin of all that occurred will not be found
in the political or economic arena, but rather in the sciences.
One hundred years after the Communist Manifesto, to be precise,
on December 23, 1947--smack dab in the middle of Twentieth Century
-- two Bell Laboratory scientists invented the first transistor.
It was the birth of a technology that would serve to dominate
the balance of this century and, I dare say, much of the Twenty-first
as well. The Digital Age was upon us.
and their offspring, the microchip, transformed everything: the
computer, the space program, the television, the telephone, the
markets, and, to be sure, telecommunications. Modern telecommunications
became the common denominator which gave everyone the ability
to make a stark, uncompromising comparison of political and economic
systems. The truth could no longer be hidden from the people.
We had migrated said Walter Wriston of Citicorp from the gold
standard to the "information standard."
a very real sense, the technology of the Twentieth Century moved
mankind from the big to the little. It is a trend that will surely
continue. In physics, this century began with the theory of General
Relativity; this dealt with the vast, with the universe. From
there we journeyed to comprehension of the infinitesimal, to
quantum physics. Physicists were now able to decode nature's
age-old secrets. Similarly, in biology we also moved from macro
to micro—from individual cells to gene engineering. We entered
an era of biomedical research where we can probe the fundamental
components of life and remedy mankind's most distressing afflictions.
in stark contrast to the signals at the turn of the last century,
the evidence today is overwhelming that the next century will
be dominated by the information standard. Today, millions of
transistors are etched on wafers of silicon. On these microchips
all the world's information can be stored in digital form and
transmitted to every corner of the globe via the Internet. This
will change the way we live, the way we work, and the way we
play. Indeed, the Digital Revolution will direct the next century
just as the Industrial Revolution directed much of the Twentieth.
there you have it: the pain, the progress, and the promise of
my parent's century. It would be grand to believe that we have
learned from our mistakes, that only enlightened times await
us, but I am afraid that would be a bit pollyannaish. Still,
we stand on the threshold of immense scientific breakthroughs
and the future looks brighter than it ever was. Indeed, the Weizman
Institute of Science symbolizes the scientific miracles of the
Twentieth Century and points the direction for the world as we
enter the Twenty First. If my parents were still present, they
would surely tell this kid from Bialystok to await the next century
with great anticipation and with infinite optimism.
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