The death of my teacher, mentor and friend Elie Wiesel on July 2, 2016, marked the loss of one of humankind’s pre-eminent moral voices, but it also constituted a stark reminder that the Jews who had emerged from the inferno of the Shoah are dwindling far too rapidly and far too soon from our midst. Ever since the liberation of the Nazi death and concentration camps, the survivors of the Holocaust had been first the eyewitnesses whose testimonies of the horrors they had endured could not be ignored, and then a collective bulwark against forgetfulness.
Historian Lucy Dawidowicz once described my father, the fiery leader of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, as “our Ancient Mariner, who passes, ‘like night, from land to land,’ with ‘strange power of speech’ to tell his tale to whomsoever will listen.” The same was true of the men and women, Elie Wiesel foremost among them, who referred to themselves as the Sh’erit Hapletah, the surviving remnant, and who dedicated themselves to not allowing the world to forget the genocide of six million Jews.
We are at a moment of critical transition. Almost seamlessly, the children and grandchildren of the survivors have taken on the principal responsibility for preserving and perpetuating our parents’ and grandparents’ memories as a hallowed inheritance; it is one that we, in turn, must transmit to our and future generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, not with the survivors’ fervor and intensity but with our own.
Neither the victims of the Shoah nor its survivors should be defined by the horrors they were forced to endure. Rather, they embodied a positive, forward-looking spirit that had characterized pre-World War II European Jewry, and that enabled them to create new, constructive lives for themselves and their families after they had regained their freedom.
Our task now is to forge the survivors’ memories of tragedy and rebirth into a single link in the chain of Jewish history and ensure that their all-too-brief presence in our midst remains as an inspiration for all times.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is associate executive vice president and general counsel at the World Jewish Congress.
Editor’s note: This piece by Elie Wiesel’s son, Elisha, on his father’s unwavering love for his only son resonated deeply with our readers. It was the most read and shared piece when it was published in 2017.
More essays from The Decade In Review: 2010 – 2019 as well as snapshots from our editorial team on the last ten years in Jewish Journalism, including the key issues they covered locally and nationally.