With the passing of Elie Wiesel, a unique void is made not just larger but actually huge.
His unique and penetrating voice about the Holocaust would not let us turn our eyes from history. But more important, perhaps, he demanded we look at every place in the world now, and every situation of oppression and persecution now.
He brought with him out of Auschwitz and Buchenwald the burden of survival, the haunting memories riding side by side with the obligation to make his life meaningful, and to bear witness to what had happened and to whom it had happened.
Because he survived he had to choose to not only live, but live with great purpose because so many could not.
We all pass through torments in life and sometimes carry the burden of our fathers and mothers. It may not be horrific — sometimes it is merely surviving a dispute, sometimes it is surviving an accident, sometimes it is the actions of others that cast their shadow on us. What do we make of it? What is it we choose to do with the burden or disgrace? Do we choose to do anything or merely go on?
Elie Wiesel wrote and wrote and wrote, though 10 years had to pass before he felt he could write and fully express what he and others had endured.
He had to learn what words to use, how to access within himself all that now was, like an evil weed, planted in his soul and psyche. He bore the fruit of a garden he never wished had been planted.
He would have preferred to have his family alive and untouched, to have the world untouched by Hitler and the massive tortures, murders, inhumane labor camps, rape, starvation and isolation.
He is quoted as never reaching deep laughter thereafter, although he was able to find love and marriage and children. He wore a heavy coat of obligation, which he seemed never able to take off. And as if Auschwitz were not enough, he invested his foundation with Bernie Madoff along with much of his personal money. But it was not money that drove him, although losing money to help fund remembrance and education is far above that of just a trip or another house or boat.
He fought against genocide wherever he saw it rearing its ugly head, against racial fear-mongering and prejudice. He said that he “lived in constant fear” as a result of all that he endured and witnessed, and still he wrote and spoke and traveled to tell his truth.
He asked us to remember but also to see even now each new rise of fear-mongering, race-baiting and the defining of immigrants as “the other” as a harbinger.
His life and work was one of being a universal voice, a conscience from the ’30s and ’40s that could clearly see the shadows falling even today. He was and is not merely a shadow of those years; he is the righteous man who stands to say, “No more.”
Elie Wiesel was spared in order to speak. He was a man given nearly the job of a prophet: to say what we should do in the face of evil and our own shortcomings but so often turn away from. He embodied not vengeance but vigilance to be our greater selves. Blessed be his memory.
“The opposite of love is not hate,” he said. “It’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
We must take sides, he taught. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.
Let Elie Wiesel’s words be the last ones here:
“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe. ...
“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”