Agnes Heller, a Hungarian philosopher who was, for a while, the Hannah Arendt Visiting Professor of Philosophy in the Graduate Studies Program of The New School in New York (now emeritus there), and prior to that taught at La Trobe University in Melbourne, will receive the 2014 Wallenberg Medal, an award bestowed annually at the University of Michigan “to a humanitarian who has devoted his or her life in service to others.” Heller is a Holocaust survivor.
While Agnes and her mother avoided deportation, her father was sent to Auschwitz, where he died. She also lost many childhood friends in that terrible time. Heller has said the Holocaust “exercised an immense influence on my whole life, particularly on my work,” and she believes she has “a debt to pay as a survivor.” Her experiences during World War II led her to question the fundamental philosophical source of morality and evil in people and what kind of a world can allow horrific events like the Holocaust.
Heller spoke out vigorously for autonomy and self-determination after the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. “My experience of the Holocaust was joined with my experience of the totalitarian regime,” she said. Both raised similar questions in what she calls her “soul search and world investigation. … I had to find out what morality was all about.”