Elie Wiesel: A Hero for Our Times

With the death of Elie Wiesel, the world has lost one of its great champions of human rights—an enemy of indifference, inaction, and impunity. Wiesel, who lived through the horrors of Nazi persecution, dedicated his life to the principle and aspiration ‘never again.’ He has helped to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, when many would like to simply forget the depths of the human capacity for evil. And he reminded us of its central lessons, the most important lessons of the 20th century.

He spent his life fighting the scourge of anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry, silence in the face of suffering and evil, and neutrality in response to oppression and injustice. From the former Yugoslavia to Darfur to Syria, while others offered very measured, seemingly reasonable defenses of inaction in the face of mass atrocities and genocide, he reminded the international and global community of the moral imperative to protect the innocent when we have the capacity to do so. He told us, “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.” The global common good and our responsibilities to one another as members of one human family trump the myriad excuses for narrow nationalism and selfish isolationism.

Despite seeing unimaginable horrors, Wiesel said, “Yes, I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all.” Before the pope warned of the globalization of indifference, Wiesel was one of its most persistent, dedicated opponents. And he was driven by his faith.

Christiane Amanpour has called him a “hero for our times” and “a clear, consistent, and enduring moral voice.” President Obama said that he “was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world.”

The right way to honor Elie Wiesel is not with lovely words, but by devoting oneself to the defense of human dignity, justice, and freedom around the globe. Remember the lives unjustly ripped from our world. And continue his work.

You can read more about his life and work in the NY Times:

Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor who became an eloquent witness for the six million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone else, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87….

In his 1966 book, “The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry,” Mr. Wiesel called attention to Jews who were being persecuted for their religion and yet barred from emigrating. “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today,” he said. His efforts helped ease emigration restrictions.

Mr. Wiesel condemned the massacres in Bosnia in the mid-1990s — “If this is Auschwitz again, we must mobilize the whole world,” he said — and denounced others in Cambodia, Rwanda and the Darfur region of Sudan. He condemned the burnings of black churches in the United States and spoke out on behalf of the blacks of South Africa and the tortured political prisoners of Latin America….

Central to Mr. Wiesel’s work was reconciling the concept of a benevolent God with the evil of the Holocaust. “Usually we say, ‘God is right,’ or ‘God is just’ — even during the Crusades we said that,” he once observed. “But how can you say that now, with one million children dead?”

Still, he never abandoned faith; indeed, he became more devout as the years passed, praying near his home or in Brooklyn’s Hasidic synagogues….

“Night” recounted a journey of several days spent in an airless cattle car before the narrator and his family arrived in a place they had never heard of: Auschwitz. Mr. Wiesel recalled how the smokestacks filled the air with the stench of burning flesh, how babies were burned in a pit, and how a monocled Dr. Josef Mengele decided, with a wave of a bandleader’s baton, who would live and who would die. Mr. Wiesel watched his mother and his sister Tzipora walk off to the right, his mother protectively stroking Tzipora’s hair.

“I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever,” he wrote.

In Auschwitz and in a nearby labor camp called Buna, where he worked loading stones onto railway cars, Mr. Wiesel turned feral under the pressures of starvation, cold and daily atrocities….

On April 11, after eating nothing for six days, Mr. Wiesel was among those liberated by the United States Third Army. Years later, he identified himself in a famous photograph among the skeletal men lying supine in a Buchenwald barracks.