Elie Wiesel as a chasidic child of Vizhnitz in the Carpathian Mountains knew “by heart” the siddur’s line about God “keeping faith with those who slept in the dust.” God’s commitment, somewhat biblically, became his own. Like the best rebbes or prophets, his life’s work was never his intention. The teenager wanted to teach Talmud but never finished his schooling before he found himself on one of the 150 freight trains headed out of those mountains into the Kingdom of Night.
A rebbe once asked, “Do you know how many favors you can do in Auschwitz at night?” Most times, the only favor one could do was remember, witness, survive so there might somehow be one Jew left; that would have been heroic enough. What Wiesel did went beyond even that.
Like many prophets, he spent decades in obscurity, in a private wilderness. He reported for several Jewish newspapers while working on a memoir in Yiddish, only to edit away more than 700 pages, before “Night” could be translated into French and published in 1960, barely selling a thousand copies.
In time, of course, it sold millions, educating the world about the human depths of the Holocaust and inspiring numerous survivors to write their own stories. Yet it was his 1966 book, “The Jews of Silence,” about Jews in the Soviet Union, that hinted at the grandeur of his uniqueness, the daring to invoke the once-unspoken lessons of the Holocaust for the sake of other causes, from Cambodia to Rwanda to South Africa.
All the more unique was his daring to be a global moral guardian while being first and foremost a Jew. His report on the plight of Soviet Jews, at a time when Soviet Jewry was a thoroughly obscure cause, became a pivotal text for the nascent Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and later the larger American Jewish community — and it inspired Soviet Jews themselves.
Wiesel, through his vision and commitment, helped launch the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, underscoring that the tragedy had lessons for everyone. But he stressed the uniqueness of the Shoah even while urging others, including fellow Nobel laureates, to speak out against genocide everywhere.
In his self-described role as maggid, or storyteller, Wiesel introduced to countless people his teachings, lectures and books on biblical characters, such as “Messengers of God,” and chasidic masters, as in “Souls on Fire.” Each lecture and chapter was interspersed with conversational reminiscence — including niggunim (wordless melodies), be it from his grandfather or shtetl mystics, which illuminated the cheder classrooms and Shabbos tables of the past. He gave contemporary voice to the dreams, voices and values of those who slept in the dust.
Wiesel was honored as a Nobel Peace laureate and by presidents and prime ministers. Yet he was fearless in using blunt words in his gentle voice to speak “truth to power.” He told President Reagan, who was about to visit Germany and lay a wreath at a cemetery with SS graves, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims.” And he defended Jewish rights to Jerusalem in meetings with President Obama.
When Benjamin Netanyahu was invited to Congress to speak about the potentially genocidal threat to Israel from Iran, dozens of congressmen boycotted the prime minister. But Wiesel sat in the congressional gallery in support. Whenever Israel was criticized or threatened, that place was his place.
It is testimony to Wiesel’s unassuming majesty that one cannot imagine who could now do what he so elegantly did. What we can do — what he would implore us to do — is to remember, defend and continue to tell the story.