In March 1944 after Germany occupied Hungary, an almost 16-year-old Jewish boy was relocated – along with his mother and father and three sisters – to a Jewish ghetto in the little hamlet of Sighet, a town in the Carpathian Mountains that once belonged to Romania and later was apportioned to Hungary.
After several months confinement there, the family was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The young man was known to the Nazis who ran the death camp by the number that was tattooed on his left arm: A-7713. The world would later know him as Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel.
Wiesel would survive not only Auschwitz (where his mother Sarah and younger sister Tzipora were gassed), but also the Buchenwald concentration camp (where his father Shlomo was beaten to death). He would later become famous throughout the world by recounting his experience during the Shoah and insisting that the world never forget.
It is important to remember that Wiesel’s fame came not just because he survived incomprehensible suffering, but also because he demanded the world remember and learn from the horrors of the Holocaust. Wiesel was a champion for tolerance and peace and encouraged all of us to be such champions. His was a voice that never ceased to call all of us to recognize our common humanity, and he called for all people to have the same voice.
Wiesel died July 2 in Manhattan at the age of 87. He will be missed because he was a wonderful example of how to accomplish great things in life despite – or perhaps because of – suffering and enduring tragedy and pain and loss and terror and unimaginable grief.
Among the 57 books Wiesel authored is “Night,” an autobiographical account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The book – which many scholars have said belongs alongside “The Diary of Anne Frank” as required Holocaust reading –has been translated into more than 30 languages and has sold more than six million copies in the United States.
In “Night,” Wiesel recounts how upon arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women were separated from each other, and how he would never see his mother or Tzipora again:
“‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’ Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. ... For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair ... and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.” (His two older sisters, Beatrice and Hilda did survive Auschwitz.)
Wiesel would become a humanities professor at Boston University, the same school that would later create a Center for Jewish Studies and name it after him. He was an outspoken defender of human rights and brought world attention to the oppression of people in South Africa and the Sudan. He was an advocate for Soviet Jewry and spoke out against refugee crises in Cambodia and Africa. He condemned ethnic strife in Bosnia and human rights abuses against the Kurds in Turkey.
He was a founding member of New York’s Human Rights Foundation, and was named by President Jimmy Carter to head the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In that role, he helped create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize where he was lauded as “a messenger to mankind” involved with “practical work in the cause of peace.”
Because of his good work, he received so many honors that it almost impossible to number them. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letter, and was awarded both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has received many, many honorary degrees, including doctorates from such Catholic universities as Notre Dame, Georgetown, Marquette and Fordham.
But his life’s work was not inspired by the honors and degrees and prizes and recognition afforded him. So, why did he devote his life to Holocaust remembrance and to working on behalf of others? His reflections in “Night” give us an answer: “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living ... To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time… The only role I sought was that of witness. I believed that having survived by chance, I was duty-bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life.”
In a 1981 interview with The New York Times, Wiesel said that “I survived, it must be for some reason. I must do something with my life.”
Although the world did not always listen to what he had say, Wiesel continued to speak out. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest,” he once said.
In a 1986 interview with US News & World Report magazine, he said he could not remain passive in face of wrongdoing: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”
What strikes me about Wiesel is that despite the good work he did, he did not pretend to be a perfect person. He was quite open about his struggles with faith and belief in God.
In “Night,” he wrote that “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night … Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.”
In a 2013 interview with Moment magazine, Wiesel explained that he wrote that as “an outcry, an agonizing outcry. I come from a very religious background. I spoke to God, (and) against God … the question, ‘Where is God?’ has obsessed me for many years and still does without an answer.”
Wiesel’s long contemplation of where God belonged in his life eventually led him to realize, “I can be with or against the Jewish God … but not without God.”
Wiesel was once asked how he would respond to people who no longer believed in God because of their experiences during the Holocaust. He said, “I ask them, ‘How can you believe in man?’ After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven. Human beings did it. And most of them were cultured, educated. The (Nazis) were led by people with college degrees, some of them with doctoral degrees.”
In a 2011 interview with the Post and Courier of Charleston South Carolina, Wiesel said, “Of course I believe in God … But my faith is a wounded faith.” And, writing in “Night,” he said, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.”
Perhaps Wiesel’s theology is best explained by author Robert E. Douglas in his book, “Elie Wiesel’s Relationship with God.” Douglas quotes Wiesel as saying, “Hopefully, God knows what He is doing. And even if He doesn’t, He is still God, and it is not for mortals to judge His acts, though they may question His motives.”
Wiesel may have had his struggles – and rightly so – with his faith. But, he was the embodiment of the Biblical scripture that is inscribed at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that he helped establish: “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children's children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9)
In Judaism, mourners pray for their dead not with lamentations, but by reciting Kaddish, a hymn of praise to God and a yearning for his Kingdom. It is fitting to recite for Wiesel:
“May His (God’s) great name grow exalted and sanctified in the world which He created according to His will. May there be abundant peace from Heaven upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: ‘Amen.’ He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: ‘Amen.’ May He establish His kingdom … speedily and very soon! Now say, ‘Amen.’”