I first met Elie Wiesel in the summer of 1965. Wiesel’s book Night had been translated into English five years earlier. Night was just beginning to be recognized in English-speaking countries. Wiesel was not yet then the impressive speaker he was soon to become. As he addressed the audience that summer about the horrors of the Holocaust, Wiesel was diffident to the point of shyness. As an overly-confident high school debater, I thought Wiesel was a great writer who would never learn to speak.
I was profoundly wrong.
Soon thereafter Wiesel emerged as the dominant voice of the survivors of the Holocaust. The culmination of that emergence came during the 1985 controversy about President Reagan’s planned visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany. Unbeknown to President Reagan and his trip planners, the cemetery contained the graves of 47 SS guards, not exactly the individuals whose memories should be honored by the President of the United States.
“That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” Wiesel memorably declared to Reagan of the Bitburg cemetery. “Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
When Wiesel received the Nobel Prize in 1986, my mother-in-law, a survivor of Auschwitz, was as proud as if she were Wiesel’s big sister – which, in an important sense, she and her fellow Holocaust survivors were. An important reason that Wiesel emerged as a respected moral voice is that he embodied the classic Jewish insistence that particularism and universalism are not opposites but complements: Those grounded in their own identity are best-positioned to express their common humanity with others.
In one of the famous articulations of this perspective, the Jewish sage Hillel rhetorically asked: “If I am not for me, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I?” Wiesel embodied this ethic. The Holocaust, he proclaimed in his writings and speeches, was an assault upon Jews and Judaism. The forces which underlay the Holocaust are with us today. Israel and the worldwide Jewish community legitimately protect themselves from those who think the Nazi’s work is unfinished.
Because the threat of anti-Semitism remains so virulent, Jews also have an obligation to protest simultaneously the oppression of others. Thus, Wiesel, as he emphasized the anti-Semitic origins of the Holocaust and the current implications of the Holocaust, was equally outspoken about the contemporary tragedies of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Wiesel played an important role in bringing to the world’s attention the genocide in Dafur. With equal vigor, he denounced Turkey’s efforts to minimize the Armenian genocide. Precisely because Wiesel was so grounded in the Jewish community and its history, Wiesel’s voice carried enormous weight when raised for others.
The United States today, torn by racial and ethnic divisions, badly needs Wiesel’s Hillel-like vision to bridge the gaps which divide us: We must be for each other even as we are for ourselves. As for Wiesel, we can now only bestow upon him the final and traditional Jewish blessing for the departed: May he rest in Paradise. He earned it.
Featured image credit: Dr. Mashkevitch and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel by Sbakuria. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.