By Gerard Leval
I first met Elie Wiesel more than 30 years ago. I had been asked by certain individuals involved with the development of a proposed Holocaust museum on the Mall in Washington if I would be willing to volunteer to provide legal services to the project. I was invited to meet Wiesel, then the chairman of the project, in order to have him determine whether I was qualified to assist the efforts to develop the museum.
Wiesel was by then already an icon. Meeting him was intimidating. But, our meeting went remarkably well. It turned out that I shared a few important points of convergence with Wiesel. Alas, I had my own familial connection to the Holocaust: My Polish grandparents had been murdered at Treblinka. To Wiesel, the protector of Holocaust memory, this was a very important credential. It meant that he could have some assurance that I would be able to empathize with the suffering that had been experienced by Holocaust survivors and thereby understand the raison d’etre for the proposed museum.
Interestingly, we had another link. We both had a profound love of France and of the French language. Wiesel had developed his skills as an author in France. I had grown up in Paris. In fact, during my initial meeting with Wiesel, and always thereafter, we spoke in French. Both Wiesel and I felt most comfortable speaking French.
But there was one more circumstance that linked us. When Wiesel had first arrived in France, he had turned to the French Jewish community for assistance. At that time, my grandfather was serving as the secretary general of the Consistoire of Paris, the official arm of the Jewish community of Paris. Wiesel recalled that he had met my grandfather in those early years and retained warm memories of him. My appointment was confirmed.
As a consequence, I was given a front row seat in the development of Washington’s Holocaust museum and an opportunity to work with Wiesel and his development team.
The Elie Wiesel I grew to know was a multi-faceted individual. He was, as I well knew from having read “Night” (in the original French) and Wiesel novels and plays, a profound, thoughtful and skillful writer. His ability to use language to evoke an understanding of the worst instincts in humans as well as to call upon each of us to reject those instincts, was unparalleled. He could stir the deepest emotions and inspire the loftiest thoughts.
He wielded a unique and powerful voice. Few now remember that in the first two decades after the end of World War II, scarce were the Holocaust survivors who were willing to speak about the atrocities they had experienced. Guilt, shame and fear seemed to prevent them from evoking their horrifying memories. But, the reluctant survivors found their voices once Elie Wiesel had so movingly initiated the process.
Wiesel’s literary output awakened the world, but Wiesel was also the principal proponent for the creation of the very tangible Holocaust museum in Washington — a building which I have frequently referred to as a three dimensional course in legal ethics.
When, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter named Wiesel to head the United States Holocaust Commission, it was not clear what the commission would actually accomplish. Wiesel skillfully guided the commission to a series of recommendations. It was his view that any commemoration of the Holocaust had to be both “for the dead and for the living.” Thus, he advocated for a Holocaust museum that was to be, not just a museum to the past, but a living memorial for the future.
In order to implement his brilliant vision, Wiesel assembled a team of survivors, scholars and some very successful local real estate developers, such as Harvey Meyerhoff, Albert Abramson, Ted Lerner and Gerald Sigal, who in spite of their modest ties to the Holocaust, had a strong devotion to the cause of Holocaust memory. It was Wiesel’s genius that he recognized that he did not have the skill necessary for the building of a major cultural institution. He knew he needed individuals with appropriate expertise to implement his vision for the Holocaust museum and that he needed to let them do their work freely.
In a remarkably selfless act, as it became obvious that he could not personally handle the details of construction, Wiesel elected to stand aside and let those with the requisite expertise proceed without interference with the development of the museum. He remained a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, the governing board of the museum, until his death. (President Barack Obama reappointed him to another five year term just a few weeks ago.)
But he relinquished all control over the building of the museum and let the museum project be led by builders rather than by a philosopher. The museum was successfully completed in record time. Wiesel’s plan to preserve the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and to teach the lessons of that horrific event became, through the handiwork of others, an incomparable gift to our nation and to the world.
When Elie Wiesel first determined that Washington needed a museum to commemorate the Holocaust many thought that he was, at best, pursuing an unnecessary endeavor, at worst, engaging in a useless and expensive effort. Today, as the world is spiraling towards ever greater intolerance, with anti-Semitism resurgent in so many areas, remembering the Holocaust and its lessons is clearly more important than ever. Elie Wiesel’s vision for a museum in the nation’s capital will assure that the martyrdom of the millions of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust will not be forgotten and, of even greater significance, that the suffering of those millions will serve to teach generations to come of the terrible consequences that intolerance and hatred can inflict on civilization.
Gerard Leval serves as the pro bono general counsel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the governing board of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Arent Fox LLP.