We join in mourning the passing of Elie Wiesel, one of the most famous Holocaust survivors, who died Saturday at the age of 87. Like many other heroic figures of the tumultuous last century, Wiesel transcended his earthly existence to become a symbol, an inspiration and an idea.
Through his storytelling and his writings, Wiesel was the world’s guide to the torment of the Holocaust experience. He emerged from the depths of hell to answer a calling to help transform humanity, rather than to reject it. He also defined that calling for the rest of us, and did so in the starkest of terms.
His words were memorable, his impact was significant and his moral suasion was untouchable: “I belong to a people that speaks truth to power,” he publicly lectured President Ronald Reagan in 1985, when Reagan planned to visit a German military cemetery containing graves of the Nazi SS. “Mr. President, your place is not that place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
Although Wiesel became one of the world’s best known Jews, he did not limit his efforts to issues of parochial Jewish concern. Having survived a genocide, he did not stay silent about others.
“Mr. President,” he said, this time to Bill Clinton in 1995 during the genocidal Bosnian war, “I must tell you something. I have been in the former Yugoslavia last fall. I cannot sleep since what I have seen. … We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.”
Although Wiesel occasionally took political positions or made pronouncements with which some disagreed, those differences pale in comparison to the larger message of Wiesel’s public life and his relentless effort to help mold a world that learns from its mistakes. On that issue, he once famously asked in a speech whether, when he left this physical world, and was reunited with his father — whom he witnessed being murdered during the Holocaust — could he tell him that people had changed? Sadly, the answer is “no,” since we still live in a world where humans inflict unspeakable horror upon one another. Nonetheless, Wiesel provided a ray of hope.
He was the conscience that challenged the status quo. He was the voice that forced memory of evil, but refused to accept it. And he was a man of deep and abiding faith.
In his Holocaust memoir “Night,” Wiesel famously wrote about a Jewish boy who was struggling between life and death, with a noose around his neck in the Kingdom of Night: “‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked,” Wiesel wrote. And then, “Where is God now?” To which an internal voice answered, “Here He is. He is hanging here on this gallows.”
Elie Wiesel taught us that God remains with us if we do not turn away.