Elie Wiesel, who has died at the age of 87, was a Noble Prize winner and towering literary figure whose book Night chronicled his horrific experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and endures as one of the world’s most powerful testaments to the Holocaust. He was one of the few people who stamped the reality of the Holocaust on humanity’s consciousness.
For me, growing up, Wiesel represented no less than Judaism itself.
As a child my mother would take us to hear him speak every year at our Chicago synagogue. Wiesel was friends with the rabbi and he made time in his busy schedule to deliver a lecture in our suburban Chicago community each year.
Those lectures — and the books he wrote — made Judaism exciting to me. Mr. Wiesel, born in Romania in 1928, grew up steeped in stories told to him by his grandfather Feig, a member of the Viznitz Hasidic community, and he shared some of those stories with us.
He shared tales laden with symbolism and meaning: of poor peddlers who were seeking riches and ordinary people who craved holiness and the Divine. Tales of people whose lives were steeped in learning, whose good deeds enabled the world to continue on its course.
I was transfixed. I’d never heard stories like this anywhere else. In the worlds Mr. Wiesel described, a yearning for meaning and spirituality seemed to be the norm.
Mr. Wiesel’s own life embodied this expectation, that it was natural to take life seriously, that we have a duty to make the world a better place. Speaking with the New York Times in 1981, Mr. Wiesel explained that as a Holocaust survivor, he felt this responsibility keenly: “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. On the other hand, I know I cannot.”
He fought against man’s complacency and indifference. “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference,” he would often say. He lived with the mission to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. At the Nobel prize ceremony in 1986 he said, “I have tried to keep memory alive. I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”
Gazing at Mr. Wiesel each year as he stood at the lectern speaking, he was a link to something precious that was nearly lost: a tradition and wisdom that seemed completely lacking in the world as I knew it. He spoke passionately about the Holocaust, about seeking meaning in life, about the moral issues of the day.
At the time, the plight of Soviet Jews was in the news. “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia,” Mr. Wiesel challenged, “but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”
Elie Wiesel challenged us to be better and to do more. There is a story I heard Mr. Wiesel tell that has stayed with me to this day. It was about a man who was always borrowing his neighbor’s lantern because he had no lantern of his own. He finally realized that if he wanted to be able to travel where he wanted to, he needed to create his own lamp. I cannot do justice to the eloquent way that Mr. Wiesel told this beautiful fable, but I remember the chills that ran up my spine as he explained that we each must acquire our own light, our own learning, with which to guide our own unique paths.
That night I resolved to find my own light. My thirst for Jewish knowledge was sparked by those talks by Elie Wiesel. I took classes in Jewish subjects in college, read Jewish books and eventually traveled to Israel to study, viewing knowledge as a way to light one’s own lantern.
Decades later, I realized I should somehow personally thank him for changing my life. I discovered that Mr. Wiesel was on the faculty of Boston University. I called the school and asked for his office. “Yes?” a pleasant woman replied; she was his private secretary. Although Mr. Wiesel was frail and couldn’t come to the phone, she said, she’d be happy to give him a message.
I poured out my heart. I told her how important Mr. Wiesel had been for me, how his books had guided me, how he’d changed my life. She listened patiently as I spoke. “I’m sure he hears from prominent people all the time,” I said, “but please tell him that for one ordinary person, his words made a huge difference.”
The secretary spoke, her voice thick with emotion. “I’ll tell him,” she said. “He will be so happy.”
Elie Wiesel changed the course of millions of people’s lives through his long and active life. I’m so grateful I had the chance to thank this remarkable man for altering mine. In his memory, let us embrace the values he held so dear – the passion of Jewish learning, remembering the Holocaust and fighting evil.
Dr. Yvette Alt Miller (Aish.com)