“One person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death.” -Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel passed away on Saturday.
I never met him, but I feel as though I’ve known him all my life. He was not a celebrity, but he was a man I followed through his books and talks and his presence in the media. His slight physical stature gave testament to the indescribable demands of his life, but belied the intensity of strength within his frame. His was the face of The Holocaust, and in it we perceived both the best and the worst of mankind. As both victim and voice, Elie Wiesel has left us with both the shame and the hope of all humanity.
I was a teenager when Wiesel published his concentration camp memoir, Night. Until then, my awareness of The Holocaust had been little more than fascination with the operations of the U.S. winning World War II. Night provided a personal dimension which removed every scrap of glory from the battlefields of Europe and with a laser-focus awakened me to the horrific realities of war generally and The Holocaust specifically. Elie Wiesel changed me. His story came to represent injustice and man’s capacities for evil, and Wiesel himself became the definition of survival, perseverance, hope and dignity.
In Wiesel, we were provided with a rare glimpse into the full capacities of a man. We hope that he was everyman, for in him we witnessed the subjugation of both the body and soul, the humiliation of heart, the resilience of spirit, the rationale for forgiveness and the strength for recovery. Wiesel provided us with a real-life template for power and strength, despite an outward countenance which seemed frail, gaunt, haunted. It was as if one could experience fragments of the pain, disillusionment, strength and mastery that he embodied. With his help, I could begin to unravel at least some of the mysteries which cloud a young man’s maturation.
Elie Wiesel may have been regarded by some as an ultimate victim, one who by chance or odd alignment of fates managed to survive the unsurvivable. But he was tough. His indictments of his oppressors carried the power of personal witness and legitimacy. He demanded and commanded the attentions of a civilization reeling from its atrocities, both past and current. He became a “messenger to mankind,” according to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee which recognized his impacts with its international prize in 1986. It was perhaps the tone and consistency of his toughness, merged with an eloquent claim for human decency, that penetrated our conscience.
For much of the world, Elie Wiesel and his work were the aftermath of The Holocaust and that period of our world’s history. But Wiesel viewed himself as a voice for the present day, as well as a central character of the historical past. His causes were today’s litanies of conflict: in turn, Wiesel advocated for the victims of apartheid in South Africa, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Bosnian victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, and, yes, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians. His message transcended borders and inhibitions; his example goaded and coaxed us to speak:
“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.” (From his 1986 Peace Prize acceptance speech.)
“In Night,” Wiesel said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end—man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.” He did that; he shared with us the bottom of all hope. But he also left us with a beam of light.
Wiesel’s message of peace, atonement and human dignity was a bright gift of the first order. We are diminished by his passing, and made more whole by his legacy of the triumph of courage and love….