Elie Wiesel gave the Holocaust a face and the world a conscience

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office's private dining room, May 4, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Elie Wiesel, right, and President Barack Obama met at the White house in 2010. White House photo/Pete Souza via JTA

 

Updated July 6, 2017

Norm Goldstein was at the International Liberators Conference in Washington in 1981, an event also attended by Elie Wiesel, then the founding chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.


Goldstein, a Washington resident who, like Wiesel, was active in the movement to free Soviet Jewry, was hosting a former soldier who had liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, where Wiesel had been interned.

“I went and found Elie Wiesel and introduced myself to him and I told him that this guy wanted to meet him,” Goldstein recalled this week.  “[Wiesel] hugged him. He was as compassionate and loving as you could imagine. Elie Wiesel took him like he was honored to be in his presence because he was a liberator. And I think it shows the humility of Elie Wiesel.”

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Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate who became a leading icon of Holocaust remembrance and a global symbol of conscience, died Saturday at 87. His death was the result of natural causes, the World Jewish Congress said in a statement.

A philosopher, professor and author of such seminal works of Holocaust literature as “Night” and “Dawn,” Wiesel perhaps more than any other figure came to embody the legacy of the Holocaust and the worldwide community of survivors.


“I have tried to keep memory alive,” Wiesel said at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1986. “I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

Often he would say the “opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”

The quest to challenge indifference was a driving force in Wiesel’s writing, advocacy and public presence. Though he considered himself primarily a writer, by the end of the 1970s he had settled into the role of moral compass, a touchstone for presidents and a voice that challenged easy complacency about history.

Wiesel spent the majority of his public life speaking of the atrocities he had witnessed and asking the public to consider other acts of cruelty around the world, though he drew the line at direct comparisons with the Holocaust.

“I am always advocating the utmost care and prudence when one uses that word,” he told JTA in 1980.

President Barack Obama, who met frequently with Wiesel and took his counsel, said he had been a “living memorial.”

“Along with his beloved wife, Marion, and the foundation that bears his name, he raised his voice not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms,” Obama said. “He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of ‘never again.’”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wiesel was “bitterly mourned” by the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

“Elie, the wordsmith, expressed through his extraordinary personality and fascinating books the triumph of the human spirit over cruelty and evil,” he said.

Many in Washington’s Jewish community felt Wiesel’s impact both through reading his work and listening to him speak at his public appearances. Some, like Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, also met him.

Arian met Wiesel twice, including as a rabbinical student in 1984. He said this week that he was struck by Wiesel’s gentle demeanor.

“I think he had a way of interacting with everyone he met,” Arian said. “The first time I met him, I was 25, still in rabbinical school, still very wet behind the ears. But he talked to me as an equal. He talked to me as someone who mattered.”

Arian said many people he has talked to who knew Wiesel had similar experiences and that Wiesel’s journey during the Holocaust will leave a legacy that is very “personal and individual.”

“Six million is such a big number that is so hard to relate to, but by sharing his own story, it became so much more human and so much more digestible,” he said.

‘Mesmerized by Wiesel’
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch, said that on the occasions he interacted with Wiesel, he noted that groups of students were “mesmerized” by him.

“He carried himself with great dignity, but always seemed to have the burden of the Jews on his shoulders,” he said. “His facial expression and other demeanors would convey a keen sense of memory along with whatever joy was at the moment.”

Shemtov said that there may never be another Jew of Wiesel’s generation to speak truth to power in the same way.

“He was singular within the academic and literary community to write and speak words that would weave together two very different worlds, both in terms of past and present, and in terms of the spiritual and the public sphere,” Shemtov said.

Wiesel won a myriad of awards for his work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and the National Jewish Book Award. “Night” is now standard reading in high schools across America. In 2006, it was chosen as a book club selection by Oprah Winfrey and, nearly half a century after it was first published, spent more than a year atop the best-seller list. He would also take Winfrey to Auschwitz that same year.

Writing for The New York Times Book Review in 2008, Rachel Donadio said “Night” had become “a case study in how a book helped created a genre, how a writer became an icon and how the Holocaust was absorbed into the American experience.”

“There is no way to talk about the last half century of Holocaust consciousness without giving Wiesel a front-and-center role,” said Michael Berenbaum, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s research institute. “What he did, extraordinarily, was to use the Nobel Prize as a tool to call attention to things, and as a vehicle to scream louder, shout more, agitate more.”

Born in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, then and now a part of Romania, in 1928, Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 with his family when he was 15. His mother and one of his sisters would disappear forever when the family was forced aboard the cattle cars, murdered immediately. His father, who traveled with him to the camps, died of dysentery and starvation in Buchenwald. Two sisters would survive the war.

In “Night,” Wiesel describes pinching his face to see if he is dreaming when he sees the murrs of infants.

“In those places, in one night one becomes old,” Wiesel told NPR in 2014. “What one saw in one night, generations of men and women had not seen in their own entire lives.”

Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. He went on to study at the Sorbonne and moved to New York at the end of the 1950s, where he lived in relative obscurity. He worked hard to find a publisher for “Night,” which initially sold poorly.

Becoming a moral compass
In the late 1960s Wiesel finally began to emerge as one of the pre-eminent voices in Holocaust literature. By the end of his career he had written some 50 books.

In 1972, he enthralled Yeshiva University students with his excoriation of the American and American Jewish leadership for its silence during the Holocaust.

How many Jewish leaders “tore their clothes in mourning?” Wiesel asked. “How many marched on Washington? How many weddings took place without music?”

His 1966 book reporting the plight of Soviet Jews, “The Jews of Silence,” made possible the movement that sought their freedom.

“Elie Wiesel was the collective moral compass of the Jewish people,” Natan Sharansky, who became the face of the Soviet Jewish struggle, said in a written statement with his wife, Avital, who, with Wiesel, led advocacy for Sharansky’s release from prison.

In 1978, Wiesel became the chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Holocaust, which would ultimately recommend the building of a Holocaust museum in Washington. As his public presence grew, he began to visit the sites of other genocides. In 1980, he traveled to Cambodia. In an interview with JTA, Wiesel called the Cambodian refugee camps “spectacles of horror” and noted, “That these things could happen again simply means that the world didn’t learn — or that the world didn’t want to learn.”

In 1985, Wiesel’s reputation grew beyond the Jewish world when he challenged President Ronald Reagan on live television over his intention to visit a German cemetery that housed the remains of Nazi soldiers. In the Oval Office to receive the Congressional Medal of Achievement, Wiesel chastised Reagan.

“This is not your place, Mr. President,” Wiesel famously said. The president visited the cemetery anyway but changed his itinerary to include a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Wiesel challenged the White House again in 1993 when he charged the newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton to do more to address the atrocities then unfolding in Yugoslavia.

“Most people don’t confront a sitting president that way, and he confronted two,” said Sara Bloomfield, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s current director.

“He saw people would listen to him,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who held senior positions in multiple presidential administrations and was a key figure in the negotiation of Holocaust restitution agreements with several European governments.

“He became more aggressive about showing that it is not just the Holocaust, but applying lessons to rest of the world as well,” Eizenstat said. “He became more active in other genocidal or world conscious issues. He wanted to use that power for the cause not just of Holocaust memory, but also to prevent genocide.”

At the inauguration in 1993 of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wiesel said clearly, “I don’t believe there are answers. There are no answers. And this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark.” That question mark he applied to global atrocities, as well as historical ones.

Along with his wife, Wiesel is survived by a son, Shlomo.

Sarah Wildman writes for JTA. Daniel Schere is WJW political reporter.

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