Elie Wiesel died on Saturday, July 2, 2016. He was 87 years old.
I first became aware of Wiesel after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and although I did not follow his life and career closely, my interest was peaked after I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., where I actually met another survivor of one of the Nazi death camps – she showed us her tattoo – and grew more, and more aware of the cruelty of Nazi’s and that of racism in America.
Wiesel’s classic book, ‘Night’ focuses on his experiences as prisoner in Auschwitz with haunting clarity:
“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 these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
Wiesel was released in 1945, as the war ended, but only after his mother and sister died at the hands of the Nazi’s in Auschwitz and his father died, a prisoner of Buchenwald.
I think what attracted me to Wiesel was his commitment’ his adopted mission, to keeping alive the memory of that frightful period of human history, “…to forget the dead”, he wrote, “would be akin to killing them a second time.” He saw, and I believe he was right, that allowing the world to forget the Holocaust, would mean the continued atrocities, terrorisms and barbarisms we inflict on one another, would go without a historical point of reference, allowing us to dismiss them as anomalies and the works of misguided fanatics that can never be repeated. And while it is no guarantee that hate-filled and malignant individuals won’t inflict the sickness of their ideologies on mankind, Wiesel and others like him, are constant reminders to the rest of us that justice demands that we have a duty to speak and act against them.
It is interesting to me, that Wiesel, a man so celebrated (he was also the recipient of the Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal) for so challenging us lived to see this period in which Americans are trying so hard to deny our own complicit history in similar, continued acts of barbarism. America’s treatment of Native Americans, of Jews, Hispanics and, of course African-Americans is equally as horrendous as Germany’s treatment of Jews. Yet, not only do we blanche at comparisons between Hitler’s death camps and slave quarters in the south; we seek to relegate slavery, Jim Crow and segregation as ‘the past’ and dare to ask, almost demand, that blacks – for instance – ‘forget’ the past, that we ignore the importance of immigration and, as one American said, hang a ‘closed for business’ sign on the Statue of Liberty.
I’m sure there were those who said similar things to Wiesel. But he kept speaking out. My questions to those who call for such malignant forgetfulness, is “What aspects of your history, would you like for us to forget? What other parts of American History, should we relegate to ‘a long time ago’? Should we forget the Viet Nam War? Or How about the Korean conflict? Why not forget WWII? Almost all of the veterans of that era are dead. Should we forget them too?
Maybe we should forget America’s struggle to achieve rights for workers. Maybe we should forget the Civil War. Let’s forget the Revolutionary War. Who can keep all those names and battlefields straight anyway?
If all of that sounds silly, then you can see why Elie Wiesel is such a vital character in history. We must never forget man’s capacity to treat his fellow man inhumanely. And as painfully and shamefully inconvenient as it may be for some to be reminded, such they are vital if freedom and democracy are to thrive.
What do you think…