By the time he died yesterday at the age of 87, Elie Wiesel had attained a singular celebrity. He was the most famous Holocaust survivor and an icon of conscience. Wiesel was the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, the man who took Oprah to Auschwitz and the person journalists sought out for comment any time there was an atrocity happening somewhere. Through his books and lectures he became the chief storyteller about the Holocaust and Hasidic tales. But he was also the person who helped inspire generations of Jews and non-Jews to care about human rights while still remaining faithful to the need to protect the Jewish people and Israel against the anti-Semitic successors of the Nazis. As such he transcended the Holocaust and became a seminal figure in 20th century Jewish history.
Wiesel’s status as a witness of the Holocaust is now so deeply embedded in popular culture as well as those who study the subject seriously as to be taken for granted. But the influence of his writing during the period after World War Two when most survivors were not speaking about it cannot be overestimated. His Night is a book that has now been read by millions—but when it was first published in 1960, it was largely ignored. Yet along with the string of other books that followed it did more than merely keep alive the memory of that great crime and of its victims. It awoke in its audience a passion to care about drawing conclusions from history and a need to ponder the great question he asked about the silent complicity of the bystanders to the Shoah. For those who read his books and heard his lectures, Wiesel’s work was a call to conscience and to activism. Without his work and influence, the history of the movement to work for freedom for the Jews of the Soviet Union and to defend Israel in that era would have been much diminished if not unimaginable.
I believe many of Wiesel’s books and his collections of Hasidic tales will stand the test of time. But to grasp the impact of his work one must realize how important and unique Night was to its readers in that era. The same goes for his 1966 Jews of Silence, a book that, as much as any other event, helped launch widespread understanding of the plight of Soviet Jews during the decades when they were forbidden to emigrate to freedom in Israel and the West and sought to reacquaint themselves with their heritage after decades of Communist oppression.
As important as his books were, by the 1980s, Wiesel the symbol of the memory of the victims took center stage. His public confrontation with President Reagan over Reagan’s planned visit to an SS cemetery in Bitburg, Germany was a powerful moment that ought to stand as a lesson in how to respectfully speak truth to power. Reagan was a friend of the Jewish people and Israel and there were those who wished to give him a pass for doing a favor to his German ally Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But Wiesel didn’t hesitate or spare him when he famously said, “That place is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
That sealed Wiesel’s status as celebrity icon of suffering and he endured criticism in his last decades from those who grew tired of seeing him showing up to lend his prestige for various human rights causes speaking in his trademark anguished style. But there’s one more element of Wiesel’s career that must be acknowledged and praised.
By his later years, Wiesel had risen above his beginnings to become a hero to many who cared nothing for the lessons of Jewish history. In an era when much of the study of the Holocaust had become dedicated to “liberating” the subject from a specific Jewish context and universalizing it, many of his admirers expected him to distance himself from Israel and specifically Jewish causes that were unpopular in the so-called “human rights community.” But while he always tried to be above partisan politics and appeal to the world’s conscience wherever genocide was taking place, he never stopped advocating for Israel and its right to self-defense even when doing so earned him abuse from the left.
Just as he failed to convince President Reagan to avoid Bitburg, Wiesel also failed to convince President Obama to make good on his pledge to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and to force it to abjure its genocidal threats against the Jewish state. But, as he did every time Israel came under attack, Wiesel remained faithful to the cause of the rights of the Jewish people and to their homeland and stood with Prime Minister Netanyahu as he sought to derail the administration’s appeasement of Iran.
It was in that sense fitting that a vicious anti-Zionist like Max Blumenthal would choose to abuse Wiesel even after his death. Wiesel always knew his place was with the victims of terror, not the terrorists or those who desire the destruction of Israel, which is the only true memorial to the Six Million and the living symbol of the Jewish people’s will to survive.
Elie Wiesel may have spent his life pondering the mystery of survival when the world he knew as a boy went up in smoke through the chimneys of Auschwitz. But his life’s work helped ensure that memory lives and that those who have followed must never forget or fail to remember their obligation to stand up against those who wish to continue the work of Hitler and his accomplices. In an era in which anti-Semitism is sadly on the rise again throughout the globe, we need Wiesel’s example of moral courage more than ever. May his memory be for a blessing.