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“NEVER FORGET” ELIE WIESEL TAUGHT US THE POWER OF WORDS

By: Sarina Roffé



“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never.”

Elie Wiesel, excerpt from Night.

So wrote Elie Weisel, A”H,a moralist, an ethicist and a guardian of memory, who ensured that we would never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust. He was such an eloquent storyteller that he became the conscience of the world. Because of him, when brazen acts of inhumanity interrupt our daily routines, when terrorism, hate, and persecution reign, we pause and remember the Shoah. He ingrained the memory of the Holocaust into our collective conscience.

Sadly, the Auschwitz survivor died on July 2, 2016 in Manhattan. An excellent orator, and champion of human rights, Wiesel was a diehard witness for the six million Jews slaughtered during World War II. His testimony sought to combat humanity’s most dangerous enemy – indifference. He urged us to voice our outrage over injustice and to speak truth and gain power in ways previously thought impossible.

 Born Eliezer Wiesel on September 30, 1928, he was an
American-Jewish writer, professor, political activist, and Nobel Laureate. A native of Romania, he was the author of sixty books, written mostly in French and English, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.Among his other books were ABeggar in Jerusalem(a Prix Médicis winner), The Testament(a Prix Livre Inter winner), The Fifth Son(winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris), two volumes of memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, And theSea is Never Full, and most recently, The Sonderberg Case.

Wiesel’s Holocaust began like many others. In May 1944, under pressure from the Germans, the Hungarian authorities began to deport the Jewish community to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Up to 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Wiesel was 15 when he and his family were deported and he was tattooed with inmate number “A-7713” on his left arm. His mother, Sarah, and younger sister, Tzipora, were immediately killed in Auschwitz. Weiseland his father were transferred to Buchenwald. His older sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, survived the war and were reunited with Wiesel at a French orphanage.

In Night, Wiesel recalled the shame he felt when he heard his father being beaten and was unable tohelp. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Weisel said his primary motivation for trying to survive Auschwitz was knowing that his father was still alive:
“I knew that if I died, he would die,” he said. Despite Wiesel’s efforts, however, his father only survived for eight months in Buchenwald, dying just a few weeks before the camp was liberated by the U.S. Third Army on April 11, 1945.

After his liberation, the orphaned Wiesel went to Paris, where he learned French and studied literature, philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne. He heard lectures by philosophers like Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre. At 19, he started working as a journalist, writing in French, while also teaching Hebrew. He wrote for several newspapers in Hebrew, French, and Yiddish andeventually became a correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth. During an interview with the distinguished French writer, Francois Mauriac, the 1952 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Wiesel was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps. The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night(La Nuit), which has since been translated into more than thirty languages.

In 1955, Wiesel moved to New York to cover the United Nations. He became a citizen in 1963, his first citizenship since being stateless during the Holocaust. He also covered the 1961 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann for the New York-based Yiddish newspaper The Forward. In 1987, Wiesel was a witness during the trial of war criminal Klaus Barbie in Lyons, France, during which he spoke of his bitter experiences in Auschwitz.

In 1969 Wiesel married Austrian Holocaust survivor Marion Rose, in Jerusalem. Marion translated Wiesel’s subsequent books into English. They had one son, Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, named after Wiesel’s father.

A prolific writer, Wiesel was the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University. He taught in both the religion and philosophy departments and the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies was created in his honor. From 1972 to 1976, he was professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York. Wiesel was also a Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83), and a visiting professor of Judaic studies at Barnard College of Columbia University from 1997 to 1999.

Described as “the most important Jew in America” by the Los Angeles Times, Wiesel was a champion and supporter of many Jewish causes, and helped establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. His book, TheJews of Silence, about Jews in the Soviet Union, invoked the once-unspoken lessons of the Holocaust and extended it to other causes. By taking on the plight of Soviet Jews, he inspired Soviet Jews themselves, as well as an entire movement.

For more than fifteen years, Wiesel and his wife Marion were especially devoted to Ethiopian-born Israeli youth. Additionally, Wiesel campaigned for victims of oppression in places like South Africa and Nicaragua. He also fought for the Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Kurds. His influence didn’t end there. Wiesel passionately lobbied against apartheid in South Africa and for victims of war, famine and genocide in Sudan and the former Yugoslavia. He publicly condemned the 1915 Armenian genocide and remained a strong defender of human rights. In fact, he was a founding board member of the New York Human Rights Foundation and remained active in it throughout his life. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be atime when we fail to protest,” said Wiesel. “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee called Wiesel a “messenger to mankind.” It was their belief that his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps”, as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace,” had turned him into a messenger “of peace, atonement and human dignity”. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

The world-renowned Holocaust survivor received numerous awards and honors over the years, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, the rank of Grand-Croix in France’s Legion of Honor and the President’s Medal of Distinction from Israel’s Shimon Peres. He was also knighted as Commander of the Order of the British Empire and given over 100 honorary doctorates from various institutions. Perhaps the highest honor of all, however, was his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Ever the crusader for justice, in April 2010, Wiesel took out advertisements in four major newspapers, criticizing the Obama administration for pressuring the Netanyahu government to halt construction in Jewish neighborhoods located across the Green Line in East Jerusalem. Wiesel repeated that tactic in 2013 when he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, calling on the U.S. administration to demand the total dismantling of the nuclear infrastructure in Iran because that country had called for Israel’s destruction.

In a 2012 interview with Haaretz, Wiesel said he would bequeath the archive of his writings to Boston University, where he had taught for decades. Wiesel is survived by his wife Marion, their son Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, his stepdaughter, Jennifer, and two grandchildren.