What can I say of Elie Wiesel that has not already been said? And all of it is true.
That he — peerlessly — got the world to pay attention and to grasp the enormity of the Holocaust, as well as the central importance of coming to grips with it for the sake of the future. What he did with the force of his character and the overwhelming impact of his testimony — convincing the leadership of American government to undertake a broader memorial, one of encounter, education and conscience — which is now called the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. No one else could have done it.
That he changed the understanding of Shoah survivors from victims to be pitied into treasured witnesses, into the embodiment of life affirmation and the voice of conscience for everyone.
That armed with the laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize, he became a champion of human rights in the world, and a prophet rebuking the misuse of power.
That out of his greatness he served humanity. But as he said: “Since I am a Jew profoundly rooted in my people’s memory and tradition, my first response is to Jewish fears, Jewish needs, Jewish crises.” He became a pioneer in the liberation of Soviet Jewry, then one of the great teachers of Judaism in our time, and defender of Israel par excellence.
Let me add this: He was the rarest of the rare — a true hero.
I never could make up my mind as to which was the more heroic period of his life. Was it during the 25 years or so when he was an orphan, a survivor, alone, ignored, unable to find a sympathetic audience? As he wrote: “…the people around us refused to listen; and even those who listened refused to believe; and even those who believed could not comprehend.” Where did he find the courage to persist? Haunted by all those memories and carrying the burden of those unburied dead (“we bear those graves within ourselves”), why did he not let himself be sucked into the maw of depression and death? How brave was his heart that he found the power to go on writing and testifying without being broken by the indifference or giving up the mission out of despair? To use his language: How did he go on without turning against humanity — or going mad?
Or was his greater heroism exhibited after humanity discovered him, in that phase of striding the world stage — trying to move the nations by sheer force of will to rescue the refugees and victims, evoking the memory of the Holocaust to speak out in solidarity for those abandoned and under threat of genocide, standing with Israel in the face of existential threat? (“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.”) To meet with rulers and mix with the powers-that-be without being co-opted from the mission or distracted from the message — and to do all this with dignity, humanity and unyielding integrity — is heroic, almost beyond measure.
We all owe Marion Wiesel a special debt of gratitude for ending his isolation and breaking the wall of loneliness that surrounded him all those years. And she made an immense contribution in the later years, guiding him and protecting him, enabling him to be our “messenger to mankind.”
Let me add one more dimension — Elie’s hiddenness — a testimony to his being steeped in Jewish culture and his consciousness, that it needed to be carried forward into a new era. He spoke as a prophet would, but the age of prophecy had ended. He taught as a rabbi, but that age, too, is all but gone — so he declined ordination and would not present as a rabbi. Yet he saw (and wanted to teach) that the covenant of redemption must go on. He taught that Israel is the assertion of life reborn and that we must stay determined to pursue the final redemption.
So Elie took on a role appropriate for an age of Divine hiddenness. He presented himself as a storyteller, a wandering Maggid, scratching out the words of new (totally hidden) Scriptures that tell the tale of the Event. He taught us how to speak to God out of faith and rebellion, to be angry and to make up, to protest and to realize “haven’t You also suffered?” He instructed us “never to be neutral” and that “action is the only remedy for indifference.” He assured us that if we do act, if, like Job, we rebuild our lives, then our dreams of a world transformed are not defeated.
Elie was deeply saddened that anti-Semitism, hatred and genocide came back into the world so quickly after the Holocaust. Yet he did not despair. His final word to humanity, and to Jewry, was a call to hope. Or, as he put it: to carry on the struggle even as we “invent a thousand and one reasons to hope.”
His death leaves a void. There is no one in sight who can take his place. But his memory will be for a blessing. And his restoration of memory will be an ongoing force for a better world and a more humane humanity.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg was chairman of the Jewish studies department at City College of CUNY when Elie Wiesel served as distinguished professor of Jewish studies. He was co-founder with Wiesel (and Steve Shaw) of CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Rabbi Greenberg directed the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which Wiesel chaired, leading to the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. With Alvin Rosenfeld, Rabbi Greenberg co-edited, “Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel” (1979).