But there they were Wednesday evening in the majestic Celeste Bartos Forum of the New York Public Library where The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity honored the Hollywood actor, producer and humanitarian with its inaugural Arts for Humanity Award, and the famed British musician performed for his celebrity friend.
The Foundation, established after Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, describes its mission as seeking to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality.”
Previous awardees include President George H.W. Bush, King Juan Carlos of Spain, former First Ladies Laura Bush and Hilary Clinton, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Oprah Winfrey.
This was the first Foundation dinner since 2008, the year that it, and the Wiesels, suffered severe financial losses as a result of the Madoff financial scandal.
In his remarks, Wiesel expressed gratitude to those friends and supporters who helped revive the Foundation. (He also had high praise for the evening’s emcee, CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, who has been widely criticized by pro-Israel media monitors as biased against Israel. Wiesel said she was a longtime friend who “brings honor” to her profession.)
Noting Hanks’ involvement with film projects focusing on World War II, Marion Wiesel, wife of the Nobel Peace laureate (and credited by him as the driving force of the Foundation), told the actor: “We honor your desire to remember what others choose to forget. Your link to memory has become our link to you.”
Toward the end of the elegant dinner, Elie Wiesel told the 250 guests that he had not met “my new friend Tom” or his wife, actress Rita Wilson, before but that “we will be friends forever.”
Speaking directly to Hanks, Wiesel said that he and his wife chose the popular star for the award because “memory is what moves you,” particularly the memory of World War II, through films like “Saving Private Ryan,” in which he starred, and the mini-series he helped produce, “Band Of Brothers.”
Hanks has a long record of involvement with various veterans groups and causes. He served as national spokesperson for the World War II Memorial Campaign and was honorary chair of the D-Day Museum Capital Campaign. In a filmed tribute at the dinner, Adm. Michael Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, thanked Hanks for all his efforts on behalf of those who serve in the military, and their families.
A filmed tribute from President Obama praised Hanks for using his “fame to shed light on veterans,” and Wiesel for being “one of the great moral voices of our time.”
Sting, the singer-songwriter and philanthropist, performed several of his hits, including “Fields of Gold” and “I’ll Be Watching You,” later prompting Wiesel to tell him that the songs expressed joy in ways that reminded him of the chasidic songs of his childhood.
Hanks began his acceptance speech in an amusing vein, recalling a stay at the Jerusalem Hilton while making a film early in his career. Telling the story he seemed fascinated with Shabbos, and apparently the word itself, repeatedly saying it and drawing out the final “s” to humorous effect. He said he used the Shabbos key for his room and took the Shabbos elevator, which stopped at every floor.
While riding the elevator, he said, a group of Jews “from the tri-state area” got on the elevator, and after determining that Hanks wasn’t Jewish, asked him why he opted for the slow ride.
“Well,” he told them, “it’s Shabbos.”
Turning serious, he spoke of being fascinated by World War II as a child. “Everyone I knew growing up served in the war, which for me was like a character, an almost physical being,” Hanks said, and he thought of it as representing “monsters” that almost took over the world.
His coming of age, he said, took place on July 20, 1969, when he was 13. Witnessing a man walking on the moon, “I became a member of the human race” with the belief that there is virtually no limit to what men and women can accomplish.
Describing himself as an optimist, Hanks said that individuals can make “an extraordinary difference” and that “kindness can triumph over cruelty,” concluding: “I am fascinated by the challenge of human beings waking up [each day] and trying to make the world a better place.”