Elie Wiesel, a giant of the Jewish nation passed away yesterday, Shabbat, aged 87. There is surely hardly anyone who hasn’t heard of the Holocaust survivor who became “the conscience of the world”, standing up for Holocaust survivors, the Jewish nation, and victims of racism and genocide worldwide. The Jerusalem Post provides a condensed bio:
Called “the world’s leading spokesman on the Holocaust” by the Nobel committee, Wiesel dedicated his life to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust and promoting Holocaust education, as well as “to combat[ ting] indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality,” according to his foundation.
Wiesel said the fight against indifference and the concomitant attitude that “it’s no concern of mine” was a struggle for peace. “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference,” he said. “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”
Wiesel was the author of some four dozen works dealing with Judaism, the Holocaust and the moral responsibility of all people to fight hatred, racism and genocide.
But it was his first, the memoir Night (1956), which gained Wiesel fame. It tells of his experience with his father in Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, to where he was taken at age 15 from his Romanian hometown of Sighet.
Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel born there into a hassidic family on September 30, 1928. After the war, Wiesel was sent to an orphanage in Écouis, France, where he lived for several years. He became a professional journalist, writing for both French and Israeli publications.
After visiting Israel in 1949 as a foreign correspondent for the French newspaper L’arche, he was subsequently hired by Yediot Aharonot as its Paris correspondent.
The original version of his first memoir was over 800 pages, written in Yiddish and entitled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). He wrote a shorter version in French, published in 1958 as La Nuit, which was translated into English as “Night” two years later.
It sold fewer than 2,000 copies in the United States in its first 18 months, but did attract much attention among reviewers and created a higher media profile for Wiesel. It has gone on to sell more than six million copies. Night would form the first part of Holocaust memoir trilogy that would include Dawn and Day.
He received numerous awards and honors over the years, including the Presidential Medal of Honor by Israel, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the rank of Grand- Croix in France’s Legion of Honor, and he was knighted as Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Wiesel was also the recipient of over 100 honorary doctorates, and received France’s distinguished Prix Medicis for his 1968 book A Beggar in Jerusalem, describing the Jewish response to the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War.
In 1978, US President Jimmy Carter appointed him as chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust (later renamed the US Holocaust Memorial Council), a role in which he served until 1986. In that capacity, Wiesel became a driving force behind the establishment of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. His words, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness,” are engraved in stone at the entrance to the museum.
In 2003, Romanian President Ion Iliescu appointed Wiesel to lead the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania. This group, later referred to as the Wiesel Commission, was tasked with setting the record straight regarding the involvement of Romania’s fascist Iron Guard regime in Holocaust atrocities against Jews, Roma and others. The Romanian government recognized the commission’s findings, published in 2004, including the assessment that between 280,000 and 380,000 Jews and more than 11,000 Roma died during World War II as result of policies advanced by the Romanian authorities.
In addition to his writing, Wiesel enjoyed a second career as an academic.
Wiesel was not without a sense of humor. Upon receiving the World Jewish Congress’s Theodore Herzl Award in 2013, Wiesel said: “There were two great men in Europe at that time: Herzl and Freud. Luckily they never met. Just imagine Herzl knocking on the door of Dr. Freud: ‘I had a dream.’ Freud would have said, ‘Sit down. Tell me about your mother.’”
Dozens of obituaries and articles about Elie Wiesel have been published in the last 24 hours, too many to link to or post here. I will just link to a couple which stood out in my mind.
In Tablet magazine, Menachem Rosensaft, a friend, disciple and colleague of Elie Wiesel writes a beautifully moving eulogy of his mentor and friend:
Much has been said and written, much remains to be said and written, about Elie Wiesel who, after emerging from the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, dedicated himself to perpetuating the memory of the millions of European Jews who were murdered in the Shoah. In doing so, he became the acknowledged voice of its survivors. He often said that he could not, would not speak on behalf of the dead. He did, however, speak forcefully, eloquently for the collectivity of the survivors, and they revered and loved him for it. “Accept the idea that you will never see what they have seen—and go on seeing now,” he wrote in his classic essay, “A Plea for the Survivors,” perhaps subconsciously opening a window into his own heart, “that you will never know the faces that haunt their nights, that you will never know the cries that rent their sleep. Accept the idea that you will never penetrate the cursed and spellbound universe they carry within themselves with unfailing loyalty.”
There were so many dimensions to this unique, truly extraordinary individual. Elie Wiesel first came to public prominence, at the outset in France, then in the United States, in Israel and across the globe, as an author whose use of words was invariably elegant, direct, and piercing. The overriding common theme of his more than 60 books of both fiction and non-fiction is survival, not just the factual circumstance of survival but its transformative nature and, yes, power. The inmate of a Nazi death camp, the Soviet Jew struggling to retain a national and spiritual identity in the face of political oppression, the open-heart surgery patient, all are more than literary characters—they are alter egos with whom their author was in perpetual dialogue and through whom he taught and will continue to teach the reader the essential elements of overcoming whatever is most daunting, most harrowing, in one’s life. His memoir, Night, brought the horrors of the Holocaust into the consciousness of millions across the globe. His The Jews of Silence became one of the earliest rallying cries on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
… At the same time, he was adamant in excoriating those who sought to exploit or trivialize the Holocaust. “Auschwitz,” he wrote, “signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied had none.”
Soon after becoming chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 1980, he asked me to organize and chair a Second Generation advisory committee. He wanted our input, to hear our perspective. “When I speak to others,” he said to us at the First International Conference of Children of Holocaust Survivors in May of 1984, “surely you know that I mean you, all the time. You are my audience, because it is you who matter. … Do you know what we see in you, in all of you? We see in you our heirs, our allies, our younger brothers and sisters. But in a strange way to all of us all of you are our children.”
January 1995. Elie is at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His words during the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of that death camp’s liberation are searing: “In this place of darkness and malediction we can but stand in awe and remember its stateless, faceless, and nameless victims. Close your eyes and look: Endless nocturnal processions are converging here, and here it is always night. Here heaven and earth are on fire. Close your eyes and listen. Listen to the silent screams of terrified mothers, the prayers of anguished old men and women. Listen to the tears of children, Jewish children, a beautiful little girl among them, with golden hair, whose vulnerable tenderness has never left me. Look and listen as they quietly walk towards dark flames so gigantic that the planet itself seemed in danger.” After escaping and being recaptured by the Germans, my father was tortured for months in the notorious Block 11 of the main Auschwitz camp, known as the Death Block. Days later I receive a note in the mail from Elie: “In front of Block 11 I thought—a lot, profoundly—about your father—and about all of you.”
And finally, always, there was Jerusalem. Elie was an ardent defender of and advocate for the State of Israel, but he loved Jerusalem, both the actual city and the ethereal, incorporeal concept of the place to which Jews yearned to return for almost two thousand years; the original city on a hill that provided a psychological, spiritual refuge that even the Nazis could not take away from the child he had been in a Birkenau barrack surrounded by death and desolation. Walking in Jerusalem with Elie was a timeless experience, almost like accompanying him to a place he knew intimately, but that somehow remained out of reach. “I see myself back in my town,” he wrote in A Beggar in Jerusalem, “back in my childhood. Yom Kippur. Day of fasting, of atonement. That evening one cry bursts with the same force from every heart: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ On my right, among the men draped in their prayer shawls, there was one who did not pray. The next morning I saw him again at the entrance of he Bet Hamidrash, among the beggars and simple-minded. I offered him some change; he refused. ‘I do not need it, my child,’ he said. I asked him how he subsisted. ‘On dreams,’ he answered.”
But maybe it’s best to remember Elie Wiesel through his own words. Here is an excerpt from his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:
It frightens me because I wonder: do I have the right to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honor on their behalf? … I do not. That would be presumptuous. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions.
It pleases me because I may say that this honor belongs to all the survivors and their children, and through us, to the Jewish people with whose destiny I have always identified.
I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?
And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?”
And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
There is so much more, both at the links I’ve provided and in all the articles, eulogies and obituaries that have been written and are being written at this moment. Go and read them, learn about this extraordinary, brave, outspoken and humble man. We all need to learn from his example.
One final note: In the most eerie coincidence – or maybe it is no coincidence at all, but part of G-d’s grand plan (I sincerely hope He has a grand plan or we are in serious trouble) here is a picture of Elie Wiesel z”l together with rabbi Michael Marc Hy’d, affixing a Mezuza in Otniel Yeshiva.
Both men passed away within 24 hours of each other. One was murdered for being a Jew in the Land of Israel. One was almost murdered for being a Jew outside of Israel. The “crime” of both men was that they were Jews. Both lived to promote Jewish life, whether physically or spiritually, and both raised thousands of loyal disciples and students. One spread the word of Torah and one spread the justice of Judaism.
May both heroes, Rabbi Michael Marc and Elie Wiesel be מליצי יושר – just advocates – in Heaven for the People of Israel.
יהי זכרם ברוך. ברוך דיין אמת.