Elie Wiesel, the Moral Force Who Made Sure We Will Never Forget Evil of Holocaust

Elie Wiesel, the world’s best known and most influential Holocaust survivor, is no longer. His death at 87, announced Saturday, makes us ever more acutely aware that we are coming to the end of an era. Soon, all too soon, there will be no survivors.

Elie Wiesel was a unique figure among American Jewish leaders. Neither the director of an organization nor the head of a movement, he had no real institutional base. Unlike Gershom Scholem, Raul Hilberg or Jacob Neusner, Wiesel did not define an academic field. He was not associated with any theological or historical doctrine. He was not a rabbi though long ago Professor Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary offered to ordain him.

He was, as he liked to say, a wandering maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations and conferences, national capitals and political forums speaking to an ever changing global audience. His message was: Remember the Holocaust; remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.

More than any human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission, not only to remember the past but transform the future.

Raised, at least according to his own self-description as a Hasid, an extremely devout Jew, he behaved as a secularized Rebbe with disciples and followers ready to heed his every word.

What Wiesel uniquely offered was entry into an experience, into the darkness of the Holocaust and the shadows that remain in its aftermath. For him, the Holocaust was the sacred mystery of our time, a mystery to which survivors alone can be the guide.

And because Wiesel explored the Holocaust with religious themes, he offered entry into a new way of speaking of God and of humanity, a language that used the tools of tradition to shatter that very tradition yet also to rebuild it. His mystification was antithetical to the task of historians, and objected to by many historians, but so essential to his worldview: the Holocaust for Wiesel was incomprehensible, inexplicable.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the non-Jewish world wanted a representative teacher of the Jewish tradition — a contemporary heir, if that was possible, to the Hebrew prophets, untainted by parochialism of denominational divides, who could speak from Jewish tradition and from Jewish historical experience to the universal issues of our time. Wiesel became such a figure to Jews and non-Jews, the heir of Jeremiah with his message of rebuke, but also of Isaiah with his words of consolation, the embodiment of Ezekiel’s dry bones that have come to life again, the anguished Job of Auschwitz, questioning God and most deeply God’s creation.

Wiesel was perhaps the only American Jewish leader with significant power who spoke with the charisma of a person unaided either by the power of office or by the influence that comes with vast philanthropic wealth. He distinctly merged personal charisma with the authority of the Event he represented, an authority that he had a unique and deliberate role in shaping.

Some words of biography: Wiesel was born in Sighet on September 30, 1928, observed in the Diaspora as the holiday of Simchat Torah. His father Shlomo was a rationalist, a merchant and communal activist; his more pious mother Sarah Feig was a housewife. The third of four children, he was the only son. His youngest sister Tsiporah was taken in the first “selection” at Birkenau along with her mother; his older two sisters Hilda and Bea survived, though their survival is omitted in Wiesel’s memoir “Night.”

Sighet, though technically in Romania when Wiesel was born, was Hungarian in its cultural outlook. It once again became Hungary in 1940 and thus Wiesel’s fate during the Holocaust is identified with the fate of Hungarian Jews, who faced persecution and discrimination but not annihilation until the German invasion of March 19, 1944. In April they were ghettoized and from May 15 until July 8 of that year, 437,402 Jews were deported from Hungary — 54 days, 147 trains — with Birkenau the primary destination.

The first words of Wiesel’s memoir: “I never really knew my father. It hurts me to admit that, but it would hurt him even more if I deluded myself.” Though religiously observant, Shlomo Wiesel was described as more rational in orientation, preferring that his son be a philosopher and not a rabbi and opposing the young Wiesel’s deep and to his mind dangerous attraction to Jewish mysticism and asceticism.

Wiesel was much closer with his mother, perhaps too close, he wrote. More devout and more attentive, Sarah Wiesel wanted her son to be a rabbi or a doctor and in the end, though he technically became neither, Elie Wiesel was both.

His maternal grandfather Doyde Feig introduced him to the world of Hasidism, its deep religious fervor, its haunting melodies and above all, its poignant stories. He has paid homage to this Hasidic inheritance in several of his works, including “Souls on Fire,” “Somewhere A Master,” and “Four Hasidic Masters.” Like the Hasidic story tellers of his youth, Wiesel’s stories sometime transcend time and space; historical accuracy — the task of historians and journalists — is sacrificed on the altar of narrative.

The Wiesel family was deported to Birkenau, and the Wiesel men survived in Buna-Monowitz, the work camp also known as Auschwitz III from May 1944 until January 1945 and then made the fateful decision to leave Auschwitz together with some 66,000 other prisoners on what the Germans called a forced evacuation and the Jews experienced as a death march, which he endured but from which his father never recovered.

Wiesel wrote almost nothing in “Night” or in his memoir of the next ten weeks between his father’s death and his own liberation, for without the mediating relationship of father and son, the experience of the camp meant little: “He was my support and my oxygen, as I was his.”

Sixteen year-old Eliezer Wiesel was among 400 Jewish children from Buchenwald resettled in France just after the war in a once beautiful chateau in Normandy. Many boys of Birkenau later became prominent men — none more accomplished than Wiesel.

Offered French citizenship upon his arrival, Wiesel did not understand the question and consequently refused the invitation. His statelessness and the intricacies of traveling without a passport was the reason he stated for becoming an American citizen a decade later. Thus, unlike many survivors who immigrated to the United States, Wiesel regarded France — and not America — as the land in which he rebuilt his life in freedom.

Those who worked with him in France remembered his intense desire to learn French and to absorb French literature and the thrills of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the purveyors of French existentialism. He had a passion for music, and earned his meager living by leading a choir and to his final days he loved to sing. He was determined to master the language. Jack Kolbert wrote that “Wiesel chose to write in French just as a convert chooses a new religion.”

Wiesel wrote: “I owe France my secular education, my language and my career as a writer… It was in France that I found compassion and humanity. It was in France that I found generosity and friendship. It was in France that I discovered the other side, the brighter side of mankind.”

Wiesel was kinder than many French Jews — and even many contemporary Frenchmen and women — who recoil at the French cooperation with the Germans in the deportation of Jewish children and the betrayal of non-citizens and even French Jews.

Like Samuel Beckett, Wiesel chose to write in his adopted language French — neither Yiddish even though Yiddish was his native tongue, nor Hebrew, the sacred tongue in which he pursued his journalistic career. And not even English, the language of the land in which he lived for more the last three score years of his life.

He came to the United States in 1956 as a foreign correspondent for the Israeli paper Yediot Acharonot and gradually achieved prominence and stature in the American Jewish community. By the mid 1960s his reputation was firmly established but only among a limited circle. Within a decade of his arrival in the United States, Steven Schwarzschild called him, “the de facto high priest of our generation, the one man who speaks most tellingly of our time, our hopes and fears, our tragedy and our protest.” Still shy of his 40th birthday, he was given an honorary doctorate by the Jewish Theological Seminary and was its graduation speaker literally on the eve of the Six Day War in June, 1967.

After the Six Day War, remembrance of the Holocaust and a commitment to Israel became central to American Jewish consciousness and Wiesel became its most eloquent sage. He both shaped the post-war American Jewish community and was shaped by it.

At the initiative of Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, he was named a Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies at City College of New York in 1972, and by 1976, he left for a position as a Distinguished University Professor at Boston University, where he taught for the remainder of his teaching career, commuting to Boston each Monday. The Judaic Studies Program at BU now bears his name and BU is the repository of his papers.

Wiesel divided his memoirs into two volume; the first dealt with the period of his life before his marriage to Marion Elster Rose in 1969 and the second with his subsequent life as a married man and world figure. In 1972 they had a son, Elisha, who bore the Hebrew name of his grandfather. Marion Wiesel, who has been described by her husband as his best reader and best translator, was instrumental in positioning him on the global stage, where he routinely met prime ministers and presidents, royalty and barons of industry, scholars and sages, poets and politicians, men and women of influence and affluence

Wiesel’s career can also be divided into two: his early work as a writer and then the subsequent arc of his career as a public figure and preeminent Jewish moral leader.

Wiesel wrote more than 50 books, novels and collections of essays, works of drama, even a cantata as well as stories from the Bible and the Sages, from Hasidic masters and from his own life. Yet his early work remains most influential.

“Night,” his first book, is his memoir of his months in Auschwitz. It has now sold millions of copies in many different languages and is an essential part of the cannon of Holocaust literature, widely taught in high schools, second only to the “Diary of Anne Frank” – which ends just as the Holocaust begins for her — in bringing an awareness of the Holocaust to secondary school students. An earlier version of “Night” appeared in Argentina in Yiddish and Wiesel’s archivist recently revealed that there is a Hebrew version whose content differs significantly from the version first published in French. It is apparently a work that is angrier at God, at the Germans even at fellow Jews.

“Night” was followed by “Dawn” and “Day,” two novels — not memoirs — that take a survivor of the Holocaust (the author’s surrogate) into the all-important but compromised battle for Israel’s statehood, the effort to transform Jewish destiny that implicates Jewish memory, and the inner struggle of the survivor to grapple with the fact of his survival, his yearning for death and quiescence and the inner urge to rage against the dying of the light.

In was in an early book that followed the trilogy that Wiesel charted the direction of his life’s work. In the “Town Beyond the Wall,” Wiesel introduced Pedro, the one major non-Jewish protagonist in any of Wiesel’s novels, and Pedro’s critique of Michael’s confrontation with suffering:

One can easily say that these are the words that defined Wiesel’s decision as to how to come to terms with his own suffering. In a world of meaninglessness, he tried to create meaning. His character, Michael, learns to speak of his suffering not to shatter and destroy but to embrace and empathize.

Bitburg

The Bitburg controversy was Wiesel’s towering moment in the international spotlight. It was also a moment of transition for him to speak in a specifically American voice to the American people.

Recall the background: at the invitation of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Ronald Reagan was to visit a German military cemetery and lay a wreath at the German soldiers’ graves. Kohl, who had been snubbed at the 40th anniversary commemoration of the Normandy invasion a year earlier, wanted to put Germany’s Nazi past to rest and to normalize the German people by distinguishing between the evil Nazi SS and the good German soldiers.

As luck — or as destiny — would have it, Wiesel was also about to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow. The event was scheduled for April 19, 1985, the 42nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and just before the President’s planned trip. Fortuitously, it provided Wiesel with a presidential platform and a face-to-face public meeting with Reagan during the height of their controversy.

In his autobiography Wiesel recounted the drama, relished the drama. A meeting with Donald Regan, the president’s chief of staff, preceded an Oval Office meeting. In private, the President was polite, concerned; Wiesel insistent. Chancellor Kohl, the president tells him, is even more insistent, it was too late to cancel.

Then afterwards, at the Roosevelt Room ceremony, Wiesel spoke his famous words: “I belong to a people that speaks truth to power… Mr. President, your place is not that place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

For once the great communicator, as Ronald Reagan was proudly known, was out communicated by a charismatic immigrant Holocaust survivor without the trapping of any office, merely with the power of his words and the authority of his experience.

Wiesel lost the battle. Reagan visited Bitburg, A hastily arranged visit to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp was but window dressing on the President’s tour. But Wiesel won the war.

Within a decade in Germany a new generation came forth that was ever more sensitive to the Holocaust, and public exhibitions were held on the Wermacht’s participation in the killing process. Grandchildren were writing candid memoirs about their perpetrator grandparents as the Holocaust loomed more prominently in the German national consciousness than ever before.

And in 2009, Wiesel served as the guide for the newly-elected President Obama, fresh from his speech in Cairo that was deemed by some to be too sympathetic to the Arab world. Obama visited Buchenwald with Wiesel, the German chancellor and the German president. There was not even an echo of Bitburg. The world had changed and Wiesel had played a significant role in effecting that change.

Wiesel entered other battles on behalf of memory. He was one the few to criticize the docu-drama “The Holocaust” as it aired on television in 1978. His critique as to its aesthetics and its trivialization of the Holocaust, while respected in some intellectual circles, was overwhelmed by the vast ratings that the four episodes in prime time drew and its impact on survivors, who suddenly were regarded with reverence. He continued to rage against its falsification and trivialization as the Holocaust entered the mainstream of American culture and men and women of greater and lesser talent grappled with its representation.

Yet Wiesel himself had made a choice in the 1950s when he recast his Yiddish memoir “When the World Was Silent” into its more condensed and less angry memoir “La Nuit” (“Night”). More than a decade ago Naomi Seidman created a considerable stir when she compared the two. She wrote: “The Jewish survivor’s desire for an audience he also mistrusts and hates cannot, it seems, be uttered in earshot of that audience. Of all the silences inherent to ‘Holocaust representation,’ that one has been least often broached.”

Her comments recalled for me a conversation I once had with the dean of Holocaust studies, the late Raul Hilberg, who read an unauthorized translation of Wiesel’s Yiddish original. Hilberg said that he wrote to Wiesel that “he had good news and bad news.” The good news: the work was translated into English. The bad news: “the original is more powerful than ‘Night,’” which Hilberg went on to explain was more raw, more intense, more powerful, more angry, less filtered and therefore, for Hilberg, more authentic.

For representation to a different audience of readers some transformation and some mediation must take place. That transformation allowed many non-Jews to draw close to Wiesel and through him to confront the Holocaust.

Saving Soviet Jewry

Wiesel is also recalled for his involvement with the movement to free Jews in the former Soviet Union. In the mid 1960s he wrote a book entitled, “The Jews of Silence.” It was his “first optimistic work.” He wrote: “The situation” of Soviet Jewry is infinitely better and infinitely worse than I had anticipated.”

When Wiesel wrote “The Jews of Silence,” he was not a widely known author or statesman; his memoir “Night” had sold modestly and had not yet achieved the canonical status that it was later to enjoy. its importance is not found in the impression that Wiesel garnered but in two very basic discoveries that he brought to the attention of Israel, where the work first appeared as newspaper columns and then of the West.

Like Isaiah, he preached hope. Soviet Jews, even a half century after the 1917 Communist revolution, still wanted to remain Jews, still saw themselves as part of the Jewish people and still dared to envision themselves as part of the Jewish future. “Their hope,” he wrote, “is greater than we dare hope for, greater than we can explain.” Then the admonition: “But the crucial question is whether we Jews who live in freedom are worthy of their courage and faith.”

In the battle for Soviet Jewry, Wiesel’s role was neither to organize the marches nor spearhead the movement, but to be a story teller, telling of the desire of Soviet Jews – real or imagined – to defy their circumstances of their oppression and to embrace that which had been denied them, full participation in Jewish life and support for the State of Israel. He linked his struggle as a Holocaust survivor, who felt abandoned by Western Jewry, to the struggle of Soviet Jewry and offered complacent and comfortable Diaspora Jews the opportunity for redemption – the chance to participate in the drama of the liberation of a people enslaved, to succeed with the Soviet Jewish community as they had once failed to rescue Jews under Nazi domination.

Prominence had its prerogatives. For more than a decade, Wiesel could not return to the Soviet Union, until he became chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in 1979. In later years, he met with government officials and could make the case directly. He returned to the Soviet Union immediately after receiving word that he had been named the Nobel Peace Prize recipient for 1986, speaking to Soviet Jews outside the synagogue on Simchat Torah.

It was fitting that as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and early activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, Wiesel spoke at the apex of the Soviet Jewry movement – the march on the National Mall in December 1987 on the eve of the Presidential summit. Arm in arm with the leaders of the movement, American Jewish officialdom, the giants of the Refusenik movement and American political figures, Wiesel marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the site on the National Mall with hundreds of thousands of American Jews. Had such a march occurred during the Holocaust, Wiesel said to the audience, “millions of Jews would have been saved; too many were silent then. We are not silent today.” Historian Henry Feingold notes: “it was exactly the note the audience wanted to hear.”

Wiesel was also deeply associated with the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He chaired the President’s Commission on the Holocaust under President Carter and then its successor body, the museum itself. He clashed with President Carter over whether the definition of the Holocaust should include non-Jews and under his leadership the idea of the Memorial Museum, with an educational foundation and scholarly center, was born.

But plans for its realization floundered. Wiesel resigned as chairman before accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1986 and his successors who had fought a bitter power struggle with Wiesel actually built the museum, without his input or assistance. However, his role in elevating the Holocaust to national attention — worldwide attention — helped immeasurably to make the museum a reality.

So great was his stature that, despite that history, Wiesel spoke at the museum opening.

A Global Fireman and the Nobel Peace Prize

Wiesel’s public role led him to travel to global hotspots to plead on behalf of the victims. In 1979 he went to Thailand just across from the border from Cambodia where a genocide was then in full swing. His visit coincided with the anniversary of his father’s death and much to his moral surprise, there were enough other Jews working to alleviate the plight of the victims so that he could get the required number of ten people to recite the mourner’s prayer.

He confronted six successive American presidents from Carter to Obama with the haunting question “Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed?” His question remained unchanged though the historical writings over the past 35 years can give a conclusive answer.

Wiesel travelled to Argentina to call attention to the plight of human rights campaigner Jacobo Timmerman and went to the Honduran jungle to meet with the Miskito Indians who lived on the Nicaraguan coast. He spoke out on behalf of the people of Tibet suffering under Chinese occupation, against conditions in Biafra and on behalf of the Ache in Paraguay.

In each of these efforts the message was similar. As a survivor, he identified with the oppressed. As one who experienced indifference and silence, he called attention to the plight of the oppressed and pleas for action, any action on their behalf. Indifference and silence help the oppressor and not the oppressed. Often he began by invoking the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which invites no comparisons, and only then spoke to circumstances that echoed his own experience. He came with no political platform or strategy. His task was to invoke moral outrage.

In the former Yugoslavia, Wiesel twice attempted a quasi diplomatic role. In the summer of 1992 he visited prison camps in Belgrade and Sarajevo. Wiesel asked to speak with 15 prisoners chosen at random in the infirmary without the presence of any official or guard. Wiesel asked for assurances that no harm would befall the prisoners for speaking freely, for telling the truth. Wiesel was told that the camp was closed “in our honor” and the prisoners were turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross. It seemed as if moral suasion had won a well deserved victory. Yet months later, the world learned that not all the prisoners had been freed. Five hundred remained unaccounted for, their fate unknown and the prisoners who spoke with Wiesel faced retaliation.

Wiesel asked: “How can humanitarian efforts be continued if the victims end up paying the price?”

His proposal was grandiose, the suggestions of a novelist or a dramatist. “At this point, only an imaginative, spectacular gesture from the international community could be effective. Let President Clinton initiate a summit conference in Sarajevo itself. Invite all Balkan leaders and president of the five former Yugoslav republics. The summit leaders could then tell the former Yugoslavs what Jimmy Carter told Anwar-el Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David: that they were not leaving the grounds until an agreement had been reached.

Indeed, something analogous was tried much later in the conflict but only after the United States had manifested a willingness to use its military might. The location was a military base in Dayton, Ohio, and not the comfort of Camp David and the American representative was the hardened, skilled diplomat Richard Holbrooke and not the president of the United States.

Wiesel’s second foray into this region was on a presidential mission. His moral voice was imperative to focus attention on the argument that justified the NATO bombing campaign. “When evil shows its face, you don’t let it gain strength. You must intervene…. We must not allow winter to set in here. We must end it.”

Wiesel’s humanitarian diplomacy was useful in calling attention to a political crisis. President George W. Bush met with Wiesel on the eve of the attack on Iraq and sought his support. Wiesel responded:

After his endorsement, for the first time in many years, Wiesel was booed when he spoke in Montreal and his standing in France, where the public and the government vehemently opposed the war, took a significant blow.

Wiesel was also burned by his friendship with former French President Francois Mitterand, with whom he had co-authored a joint autobiography and who had co-sponsored some his post Nobel Prize conferences. No one was more surprised — or more injured — when the truth of Mitterand’s participation with the collaborationist Vichy Regime became public shortly before the former president’s death.

Wiesel positioned himself as an ardent defender of Israel. Like many survivors, he remained deeply grateful for its creation.

“I only criticize Israel within Israel,” he has said time and again, often expressing anger at those Diaspora Jews who have marginal Jewish affiliation and yet use the mantle of the Jewishness to add credibility to their criticism. Unlike Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was both an ardent supporter of Israel and equally passionate critic of the Vietnam War, Wiesel had little to say about Vietnam and was muted if not silent in his criticism. Unlike Heschel,who found refuge in the United States, at that point in his career Wiesel scarcely viewed himself as an American figure but as a cosmopolitan Jew.

There were two areas of the Holocaust that Wiesel never went near: the hunt for Nazi war criminals and the pursuit of reparations. The former he ceded to Simon Wiesenthal and his cohorts and with regard to monetary compensation, he positioned himself above the fray.

Wiesel and Wiesenthal, two of the most prominent survivors of their generation, were not friends; some have described them as rivals. Wiesel was particularly infuriated at Wiesenthal’s efforts to include non-Jewish victims of the Nazis as victims of the Holocaust. Wiesenthal argued that there were 11 million victims of the Holocaust, six million Jews and five million non-Jews. And Wiesel feared that the Jewishness of the Holocaust would be forgotten over time.

As a Hungarian Jew, Wiesel was deported to Birkenau exclusively with Jews. Wiesenthal was incarcerated in concentration camps in which both Jews and non-Jews were prisoners. Both men gave voice to their experiences, different experiences. Wiesenthal was forced to admit that the five million figure was invented and Wiesel had to confront the political reality that non-Jews would have to be included in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum if it were to be built in Washington on land donated by the federal government.

Wiesel stayed very far away from the issue of compensation for the victims.

In his opening address to the Washington Conference on Jewish material assets, Wiesel said:

And yet the conference was about money, but not in the words of the storyteller and perhaps for but a moment, not in the heart of his audience, at least while they were in his presence. Such was the power of his public role.

A child of 15 when he entered what he termed “the Kingdom of Night” Wiesel left this world honored by his peers, respected by global leaders and known by men, women and children throughout the world. He was this generation’s pre-eminent survivor who used the moral authority of his own experience to plead for others, to arouse compassion, to rally against indifference.

He was blessed with a loving, admiring wife, his intellectual and personal companion of many decades and with a son and with grandchildren, with honors that few could imagine, even with personal wealth — his personal fortune had come back after he lost everything to Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. He was consoled by the knowledge that he had told the story and perhaps by the realization that he had made a monumental difference. He left the world bereft because while he remained faithful to his mission and succeeded in great measure, the world he leaves behind is in ever more desperate need of his voice. Others will have to pick up the slack but they will lack his authority,

Wiesel had an anguished relationship with silence. A three volume collection of his writings was entitled “Against Silence.” Silence, he taught, helps the oppressor and never the oppressed, and yet he also argued that to speak was to betray. Perhaps the survivors should have kept silent and their silence would have been more powerful than all the words that have been written and spoken.

Yet Wiesel spoke and wrote, wrote and spoke, seemingly an unending torrent of words.

He wrote more than 50 books, millions of words, thousands of speeches to forums large and small, to students, presidents and princes, to billionaires and to beggars, to the powerful and the victimized.

That was the melancholy of the man and also his greatness.

Michael Berenbaum, a Forward contributing editor, is a professor, rabbi, writer and filmmaker who specializes in the study of the Holocaust.

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Elie Wiesel, the Moral Force Who Made Sure We Will Never Forget Evil of Holocaust

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