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Elie Wiesel to Public Counsel: 'You Don't Sleep Well' When People Are Suffering

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It was a night of history and hope as Public Counsel honored Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel with the 2012 William O. Douglas Award.

"Every moment brought a surprise," Professor Wiesel said.

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Professor Wiesel was 15 years old when he was deported to Auschwitz, and his mother, father, and younger sister perished in the Holocaust. After the war, Wiesel became convinced that he should no longer remain silent about what he had witnessed as a prisoner in the Nazi death camps, and he wrote Night, an account of his experience. Since its publication in 1956, Night has been translated into over 30 languages and inspired generations to social action.

"This is what we must do – not to sleep well when people suffer anywhere in the world," Professor Wiesel told the audience of more than 1,000. "Not to sleep well when someone’s persecuted. Not to sleep well when people are hungry all over here or there. Not to sleep well when there are people sick and nobody is there to help them. Not to sleep well when anyone somewhere needs you. You don’t sleep well. And for this... we are very grateful to you."

Wiesel’s efforts have earned him numerous honors including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. That year, Elie Wiesel and his wife, Marion, established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity to advance the cause of human rights and peace throughout the world.

"Professor Wiesel is the greatest thinker to have fought the perils of indifference in the 20th century," said Public Counsel President and CEO Hernán D. Vera. "You, Professor Wiesel, have taught us how to hope. And even in the face of our human condition, you urge us to meet despair with hope, suffering with action."

Honorees Reflect on Public Counsel's Commitment, Growth

Warner Bros. Entertainment General Counsel John Rogovin accepted the Corporate Achievement Award and announced a new pro-bono project with Public Counsel.

Public Counsel board member and former Chair David Johnson received the Founders Award, becoming the fifth person to receive the honor in Public Counsel's 41-year history. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi introduced him and a video tribute from California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Public Counsel founder Fred Nicholas, philanthropist Audrey Irmas, Museum of Contemporary Art Founding Chairman Eli Broad and museum director Jeffrey Deitch, Sundance Institute Director Keri Putnam, and Public Counsel Impact Litigation Director Catherine Lhamon.

"When David founded the Impact Litigation practice area at Public Counsel, he struck a powerful blow against systemic injustice and recurring discrimination everywhere," said Leader Pelosi.

Telling stories of "courage and grace"

Accepting his award, Johnson spoke to the thousands of people Public Counsel serves every year, saying "They experience on a daily basis the gritty, personal side of the issues we too often see only in abstraction, and every day they live and endure with great courage and grace."

Public Counsel Chair Gail Migdal Title echoed his comments. "I learned early on the important role that telling stories plays, not only in preserving memories, but in effectuating positive change," she said.

The audience recognized several attendees whose stories of survival and hope inspired Public Counsel to action:

• Nancy Kannampuzha, who landed in the foster care system at age 14 and is now a college-bound senior with big dreams.
• 8-year-old Mario Avila, who lost two parents but found a new family with Public Counsel's help.
• Michelle Ross and the founders of The Community Action League, who fought for fair housing rights in the Antelope Valley and won.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented the Law Firm Pro Bono Award to Sullivan & Cromwell LLP partner Michael Steinberg. Steinberg has helped expose the mistreatment of immigrants with severe mental disabilities held in U.S. detention facilities.

"Some wouldn’t care that the spark of hope for these detainees and their families has been extinguished," said Mayor Villaraigosa. "But some – like the recipients of tonight’s Law Firm Pro Bono Award – would say indifference is unacceptable."