The legacy of Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, now a part of Romania.  He died in July 2016 at the age of 89.  He was 15 years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz.  His mother and younger sister perished; his two older sisters survived.  Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945.


Elie Wiesel, age 15, when sent to Auschwitz.
(Photo via Chicago Public Library.)

That day I encountered the first American soldiers
in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
I remember them well.

Bewildered, disbelieving, they walked around the place, 
hell on earth,
where our destiny had been played out.

They looked at us,
just liberated,
and did not know what to do or say.

Survivors snatched from the dark throes of death,
we were empty of all hope —
too weak, too emaciated to hug them or even speak to them.

Like lost children, the American soldiers wept and wept with rage and sadness.
And we received their tears as if they were heartrending offerings
from a wounded and generous humanity.

—Elie Wiesel, from "The America I Love"

After the war, Elie studied in Paris and later became a journalist.  During an interview with the distinguished French writer François Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps.  The result was his internationally acclaimed little book, La Nuit or Night, a memoir about surviving the Holocaust, which has been translated into more than thirty languages and is required reading for students throughout the world.  There's a reason that Wiesel is required reading in middle and high schools everywhere.  It's not just for a history lesson about the Holocaust, though his autobiography is one of the most useful and eloquent ways to get people to understand what World War II was all about.  It's more than that.  He wasn't just a writer; he was an activist.  He urges people to stand up to evil power, hate, and oppression.  More than anything else, this is part of his legacy.

In Wiesel's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said:

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

His attitude on indifference is especially timely.  In the wake of terrorist attacks, big ones like in Paris, Belgium, Orlando, Turkey, and Dhaka, and the smaller acts of violence and aggression that occur every day in neighborhoods all over the world, his words are especially prescient.  Indifference, or not doing anything at all, looking the other way, even when you know in your stomach that it's wrong, is akin to hate, because it allows hate to gestate.  It gives hate time to grow.  Evil must be stopped immediately and not tolerated for a minute, not counting the cost.  You can be imprisoned, like Tommy Robinson or in the past like Geert Wilders for daring to speak the truth.  You can even be murdered.  It takes great courage to stand up to the entrenched evil of those in power, but Wiesel urges people to do it.  Keeping silent is participating in the outrage.

This same idea is expressed in the famous poem by Martin Niemoller: 

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak out for me.

Elie Wiesel knew that speaking out, even when it seemed as though it could do nothing, even after living a life in a concentration camp, was important.  His experience and work are all about standing up for what's right.  They're all about the importance of choosing sides.  They're about being informed, interfering, not allowing hate to prevail.  This is his legacy, and we must respond accordingly.

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, now a part of Romania.  He died in July 2016 at the age of 89.  He was 15 years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz.  His mother and younger sister perished; his two older sisters survived.  Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945.


Elie Wiesel, age 15, when sent to Auschwitz.
(Photo via Chicago Public Library.)

That day I encountered the first American soldiers
in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
I remember them well.

Bewildered, disbelieving, they walked around the place, 
hell on earth,
where our destiny had been played out.

They looked at us,
just liberated,
and did not know what to do or say.

Survivors snatched from the dark throes of death,
we were empty of all hope —
too weak, too emaciated to hug them or even speak to them.

Like lost children, the American soldiers wept and wept with rage and sadness.
And we received their tears as if they were heartrending offerings
from a wounded and generous humanity.

—Elie Wiesel, from "The America I Love"

After the war, Elie studied in Paris and later became a journalist.  During an interview with the distinguished French writer François Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps.  The result was his internationally acclaimed little book, La Nuit or Night, a memoir about surviving the Holocaust, which has been translated into more than thirty languages and is required reading for students throughout the world.  There's a reason that Wiesel is required reading in middle and high schools everywhere.  It's not just for a history lesson about the Holocaust, though his autobiography is one of the most useful and eloquent ways to get people to understand what World War II was all about.  It's more than that.  He wasn't just a writer; he was an activist.  He urges people to stand up to evil power, hate, and oppression.  More than anything else, this is part of his legacy.

In Wiesel's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said:

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

His attitude on indifference is especially timely.  In the wake of terrorist attacks, big ones like in Paris, Belgium, Orlando, Turkey, and Dhaka, and the smaller acts of violence and aggression that occur every day in neighborhoods all over the world, his words are especially prescient.  Indifference, or not doing anything at all, looking the other way, even when you know in your stomach that it's wrong, is akin to hate, because it allows hate to gestate.  It gives hate time to grow.  Evil must be stopped immediately and not tolerated for a minute, not counting the cost.  You can be imprisoned, like Tommy Robinson or in the past like Geert Wilders for daring to speak the truth.  You can even be murdered.  It takes great courage to stand up to the entrenched evil of those in power, but Wiesel urges people to do it.  Keeping silent is participating in the outrage.

This same idea is expressed in the famous poem by Martin Niemoller: 

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak out for me.

Elie Wiesel knew that speaking out, even when it seemed as though it could do nothing, even after living a life in a concentration camp, was important.  His experience and work are all about standing up for what's right.  They're all about the importance of choosing sides.  They're about being informed, interfering, not allowing hate to prevail.  This is his legacy, and we must respond accordingly.