“… to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all”
Elie Wiesel was only 15 years old when his family was taken to Auschwitz. By the time he was liberated by the US 3rd Army, in 1945, he had lost his mother, his father, and his youngest sister to the horrors of the concentration camps.
He wrote in his acclaimed memoir, The Night:
“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 shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
Wiesel would go on to be an integral part of ensuring the world would never forget the atrocities committed against during the Holocaust. He reminded the world, as an eyewitness to the horrors of the Nazi death camps, that we must never turn a blind eye to the plight of the innocent
Wiesel’s’ passion for ensuring that the memory of victims was carried on in our collective minds lead to his being selected in 1978, by then US president Jimmy Carter, to head the President’s Commission on the Holocaust.
In 1980, he became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and later became the President of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization he and his wife created to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice.
He said in an interview in 1981:
“If I survived, it must be for some reason, I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot.”
In 1986 Wiesel won the Nobel peace prize. It was not the only recognition he would receive for his years of labor championing for human rights.
His concern for the victims of genocide did not stop with the victims of the Holocaust. He defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia.
Wiesel authored over 60 books, fiction and non-fiction and held positions teaching at many respected universities. He served as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76) and the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83).
His story is one of a man who in spite of, or maybe because of, his experiences went on to change the world. Even though mankind can be the cause of despicable horror, it is also within us all to be the antidote. Wiesel’s words help us to remember this.
“What was courage then?
You hear me say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that in those times there was light IN the tunnel. In a strange way there was courage IN the ghetto. And there was hope, human hope, IN the death camp. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she, a father shielding his child, a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain. That was courage.
But is there hope? Is there hope in memory? There must be. Without hope, memory would be morbid and sterile. Without memory, hope would be empty of meaning, and above all, empty of gratitude.”