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Elie Wiesel - Messenger for Humanity

Mark Dov Shapiro, Rabbi Emeritus Sinai Temple, Springfield
Article published in The Republican, July 13, 2016


Elie Wiesel died on July 2 of this month. He was 87 years old; his writings taught and inspired me over a lifetime. He was a survivor of the Holocaust but he also became much more than that.


Wiesel was born in a small village in Hungary in 1928. He loved his town, his family, and the sweetness of his Jewish life. But the dream came to an end in 1944 when the Nazis arrived with full fury and deported Wiesel and his family to Auschwitz. Wiesel's mother and sister were taken away upon arrival in the death camp; his father died in his arms several months later as they waited and waited for the war to end.


And Wiesel survived. When he was taken to France to be rehabilitated, he came close to giving up on life, but stepped back from suicide and instead went on to become a journalist. He also determined that he had a mission. If he had survived the Holocaust, he came to believe that it was his responsibility to bear witness to what had happened. And that is very much what he did through the several dozen books which he wrote over decades about the experience of the Holocaust.


But isn't just that Wiesel knew how to tell a story. It was his style and his vision and his persona that mattered. His very first book, Night, hinted at what was to come. It told the tale that had to be told. It was specific and graphic about the inhumanity of the Nazis and the suffering of their Jewish victims. The book captured the nightmare experience created by the Nazis.


More than that, Night touched on themes that were to make Wiesel's voice enduring. The book asked questions about faith. It asked how and where God could possibly be when the cruelty of the Nazis was so extreme. "Where is God," asked one of the inmates as they were forced to parade by a little boy being hung because he had been caught taking scraps of food to avoid starving.


And, besides that, Night asked where good human beings were during the Holocaust. Why didn't Wiesel's neighbors try to help Wiesel and his family as they were deported from their homes? Were there no Germans to stop the massacres? Could someone or some country have acted to stop or at least slow down the extermination of six million Jews?


These questions about faith and human responsibility were the core of Wiesel's life. But what made Wiesel so significant is that he not only asked great questions of others, he also expected much of himself.


As the years went by, Wiesel became a spokesperson for decency and justice on behalf of all humanity. He spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. He was concerned about genocide in Cambodia and Bosnia. He addressed the burning of black churches in the United States. He demonstrated on behalf of political prisoners in Latin America.


He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He was honored around the world and, through it all, remained a relatively shy, unassuming man.


He just happens to have written words that will continue to inspire me for a very long time. I'm thinking of the Wiesel quote which is featured at no less than the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. At the entrance to the SPLC civil rights memorial, every visitor encounters this message: "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim."


Or consider this message from Wiesel, "The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness; it is indifference. The opposite of life is not death; it is indifference."


Or perhaps most powerful for me is the way in which Wiesel responds to the challenge of believing anything positive about our world. Out of what he called his "wounded faith" after the Holocaust, he could still write these words, "What then are we humans? Hope turned to dust. But the opposite is equally true. What are we humans? Dust turned to hope.”


Wiesel is gone but I hope his passion for life and making meaning are not gone. What a privilege to have lived during a time when he was with us to teach us about giving life purpose.


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