It is with sadness that I heard of the death of Elie Wiesel on July 2 at the age of 87. I had the opportunity of meeting Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, at the Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill a number of years ago when he and Shimon Peres were speaking at an event. News of his death reinforced the fear that as survivors grow old and die, each day the memory of the horrific genocide may fade with their passing.
Because of that horrific experience, Elie Wiesel became a leading advocate for human rights throughout the world. His tireless advocacy for human rights and keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive won him a Nobel Peace Prize. He was honored by many in the church including the late Cardinal John O’Connor of New York and Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris.
He received honorary degrees from a number of Catholic universities, such as Georgetown, Notre Dame, Fordham and Marquette. Besides being a Nobel Laureate, he and his wife were the founders of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. He was recognized by the U.S. Congress for his leadership and input as the head of the Holocaust Memorial Council in the United States. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The death of his family and his own near death experience in the Holocaust spurred him on to work tirelessly as an advocate for human rights. In his book “Night,” he described the horrors of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. This book has been translated into more than 30 languages and remains a pillar of Holocaust literature.
In “Night,” he tells the story of a young Jewish man who, upon arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was wrenched from his family as they were sent to the extermination center. Many believe it was his own story cloaked in the tale of Eliezer.
That moment was described as, “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 life as an activist and author grew exponentially after his publication of “Night” in 1958. This book led to his writings on genocide and its aftermath, influencing generations and leading him to champion Soviet Jews, Nicaraguan Miskoto Indians, South African victims of apartheid and other human rights issues throughout his life, through the auspices of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. He was instrumental in the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993 in Washington, D.C. The museum tells the dark story of the Holocaust, not only for the Jews, but for all who were victims of the Nazi regime, including persons with disabilities, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witness and Catholics. Etched in stone above the main entrance of the museum are the words of Elie Wiesel: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
At the opening of another Holocaust Museum in Illinois, Rick Hirschhaut, the executive director, said of Wiesel, “It’s fair to say that there is not a single individual on this Earth today who better embodies the pain, the humanity, the hope and the unwavering belief in the power of good over evil than Elie Wiesel. There’s no one who challenges the conscience of humanity more than Elie Wiesel. By so doing, he has personally transformed the history and legacy of the Holocaust into a mandate for all of humanity to recognize and respond to contemporary atrocities and human rights (abuses).”
With the death of Elie Wiesel a major voice to help the world remember the atrocities of the Holocaust is silenced. Michael Zank, the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, who was mentored by Wiesel, said, “The number of eloquent survivors is few and far between. It puts the responsibility on us, the next generation, the children of survivors, the grandchildren of survivors, to become as articulate as we can be in maintaining this memory and the mandate that comes with it.”
The youngest survivors today are around 71 years old. The torch will soon be passed to tell the story of the Holocaust, so that the world will never forget.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.