Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor whose sad eyed face became a piercing, reminder of humanity’s ongoing agony, has died at age 87.
For more than a half-century, Wiesel gave voice to the pain of our people to influential leaders, celebrities and audiences around the world. He wrote more than 40 books, and was best known for “Night,” a retelling of his experiences as a 15-year-old boy in Auschwitz.
The best way we can all remember Mr. Wiesel is to listen closely to a man who lost his mother, father and sister in a Nazi death camp, tattooed with the number A-7713 on his arm, as he stands before the world, telling his story upon receiving the Noble Peace Prize.
“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.
We must not allow our past to become our children’s future.”
In 1985, when Wiesel received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Ronald Reagan, he stood before the gathering, and as the president looked on, asked him to cancel a planned trip to a cemetery in Germany that contained graves of Hitler’s SS guards.
“May I, Mr. President, if it’s possible at all, implore you to do something else, to find a way, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims.”
Reagan visited the cemetery, in Bitburg, despite international protests.
Wiesel often dismayed that in spite of our duty to remind the world of past mistakes, the greatest disappointment of his life was that “Nothing changed. Human nature remained what it was. Society remained what it was. Too much indifference in the world, to the Other, his pain, and anguish, and hope.”
Even so, he never gave up. Listen again.
“Yes, I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all.
As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.
This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you. No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”