My tribute to Elie Wiesel

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This month we mark three years since Elie Wiesel, the remarkable emissary for the victims of the Holocaust and fearless advocate for the dignity for all people, died peacefully in home, aged 87, after a long illness.

Surviving the Nazi death camps of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, where he lost his mother, father and sister, the skeletal teenager, tattooed with the number A-7713 on his arm, who could not cry when his father’s body was taken away as had no more tears left, came back from the“Kingdom of Night” with a will of iron to speak for those who will never speak again.

He writes in Night, his most famous book first published in 1956, about seeing babies burned in a pit, “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky…Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

Yet, unbelievably, his faith was not consumed, nor his desire to live quenched.

He said, “If I survived, it must be for some reason. I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

Though he strove to illuminate the mystery of human evil, he insisted that he possessed no answers, only questions.

In awarding him the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize (the prize money went to charities as were proceeds from his books) the committee remarked that Wiesel had “emerged as one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterise the world”.

A source of immense inspiration for millions, he never sought retribution and rejected capital punishment. He urged reconciliation between young Germans and Jews, based on an acknowledgement of the crime, and spent his time listening to the cries of the victims.

He never recoiled from speaking the truth. Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement, he tried to dissuade President Reagan not to lay a wreath in Bitburg cemetery, West Germany, where Nazi SS members are buried, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

Through his numerous books, plays and speeches, he rebuilt lost worlds that were faithful to the dead, touching the hearts of a generation who may have preferred to move on, but whom he commanded to keep the memories of history’s darkest chapter alive to prevent further horrors.

Establishing the the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, he spoke with prophetic authority, denouncing bigotry, anti-Semitism and fanaticism.

His immortal legacy imparts this hallowed lesson— that we must care deeply about the pain of others and rescue the weak. For Wiesel, the near annihilation of European Jewry and subsequent genocides, placed on us a special obligation to defend the persecuted and the downtrodden.

Described by Oprah Winfrey, who visited Auschwitz with him in 2006, as “one of the most loving spirits I have ever known”, Wiesel is to be admired not only for what he withstood, but for what he had become—an uncompromising champion for truth and righteousness.

Although his resolute commitment emanated from the pain inflicted on the Jewish people, his crusades encircled the globe, enfolding all peoples, causes and races, such as Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, the Vietnamese Boat people, Darfur, Biafra, the suffering children of Cambodia and Bangladesh, Tibetans under Chinese rule, South African apartheid, the killing fields of Kosovo, Guatemalan refugees and the famine in Africa.

He pleaded with us to remember that “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”

Traveling to the Soviet Union to appeal to President Gorbachev to let Soviet Jews leave, he said of dissident Andrei Sakharov, “He is not Jewish, but he’s my brother.”

Wanting to reach young people, he began teaching at Boston University, conveying the message that we are obligated to always take sides, to never remain neutral, and that when human lives are jeopardized, national boundaries count for little.

In chastising today’s leaders for their inaction in the face of mass murder, Wiesel rightly pointed out that what is often missing from political life is the moral dimension, the empathy for people’s pain and fears.

I remember being held in thrall by the riveting speech he delivered in Melbourne nearly 30 years ago, by the sheer intensity of his emotions and by the sad look on his face.

A loving father, when his son was young, he took him everywhere, not wanting to be separated from him.

Embracing Moses as his favourite Biblical hero, he advocated humility and quoted Camus who said, “Where there is no hope, one must invent hope”.

In a world devoid of true Heroes, Elie Wiese had endured as a guardian of justice and compassion, becoming mankind’s greatest moral witness as well the world’s official bearer of conscience and memory.

Described as the spiritual archivist of the Holocaust, and a “living memorial” by President Obama, Elie Wiesel shall be celebrated for the ages as the man who insisted on the remembrance of the victims and for never letting the world forget that apathy, and its companion, forgetfulness, should be every human being’s chosen enemy.

 

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The ADC is the Jewish communal organisation that works to ensure a safe and fair society for Australians of all faiths and cultures, by combatting anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms.

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