Thank you. Words tend to fail us most in two circumstances – in the face of profound evil and in the face of transcendental decency. When Elie Wiesel tried initially to describe his experience in the camps, he later wrote, “I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle.” We who have the honor to speak about Elie have the opposite challenge, finding words that capture the fierce and magical essence of this marvelous man.
Elie gave friendship with the intensity of a young man fresh out of college – with innocence and adamant conviction that that friendship will be an eternal bond – which in Elie’s case, it usually was. He used to quote someone who said in French, “Ma patrie c’est les amis.” “My fatherland is my friends.” Elie added, “The only cult I really worship in and believe in is friendship.” Well, beloved Elie, your cult is out in force tonight.
The miracle that I would like to explore briefly tonight is that of Elie Wiesel’s joyfulness.
Before I do, of course, we must consider the context from which that joy somehow emerged. None of us will ever comprehend the depravity of what Elie experienced during the Holocaust. He tried to help us see and feel that pain, but he knew our limits. Most of us also cannot fathom the aloneness that Elie experienced after he was liberated from Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. Imagine the 16-year-old boy who walked out of those gates. A boy with A-7713 tattooed on his arm.
A boy who, as far as he knew, had lost his entire family, and who – when he gazed at himself in the mirror for the first time since being sent to the concentration camp – saw a corpse staring back at him. “The slightest wind would turn me over,” he later said.
Many of us have been struck by the fact that it took Elie 10 years to ready himself to try to put into words the horrors of what had been done to him and to his family and his people. A whole 10 years before he could begin to write. And when he did so, in the spring of 1955, this wise old man who had been to hell and back was just 26 years old. What would it have been like for this man, in his Paris apartment, to drudge it all up, to rouse the demons – to hear what he called the “silent cries?” “While I had many things to say,” he would later write, “I did not have the words to say them…How was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy? Hunger – thirst – fear – transport – selection – fire – chimney…I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right.”
He re-immersed himself in that period into the darkness of the night. The approach that came most naturally to him was blunt and unsparing. What he bore witness to – and thus re-lived – were the horrors inflicted upon him, but also his own most searing moments of dehumanization, when he could not bring himself to help the person whose companionship had helped keep him alive in Auschwitz and later on the death march – his father. As he wrote later, “He had called out to me and I had not answered.” In the original text, which Elie wrote in Yiddish, he had added, “I shall never forgive myself.”
Elie Wiesel carried all of this. Gathered here, in a museum dedicated to educating people about a systematic effort to eradicate the Jewish people – a museum built upon the testimonies of thousands of survivors, and in whose foundation are etched Elie’s words, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness” – sitting here, it can be hard to imagine that there was a time when the prevailing wisdom was not to bear witness. But that is precisely what it was like when Elie was writing. Survivors did not speak about their past – even to their own children. Here in the United States, there were no memorials to the six million Jews who had been killed. The word “Holocaust” did not even appear in the New York Times until 1959. Even in Europe, where the mass murder had taken place and entire Jewish communities had been wiped out – the topic was hardly mentioned. It was against this wall of silence that Elie wrote.
And then the man whose life’s mission would be to combat indifference laid his heart out to the world, presented his experiences, his story, and they reacted with indifference. Although he had cut the original Yiddish version from more than 800 pages to a little more than 100, as we all know, all the major publishing houses turned the book down. The renowned French novelist Francois Mauriac tried to help Elie. “No one is interested in the death camps anymore,” publishers told Mauriac. “It just won’t sell.” When Elie went in search of an American publisher, he later recalled, their rejection letters often noted that American readers “seemed to prefer optimistic books.”
All who have read Night are haunted, perhaps above all, by Moshe the Beadle. Moshe was among the first wave of foreign Jews deported from Elie’s town of Sighet, Hungary, who were transported by train to a forest in Poland, where they were forced to dig their own graves at gunpoint, and then executed en masse by the Gestapo.
Moshe survived, wounded, faking his death, and eventually made his way back to Sighet, where he told his neighbors what he had witnessed. “Jews, listen to me!” he yells outside the synagogue, weeping. “That’s all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me.” But no one listens. Moshe is ignored – dismissed as a madman. How cruel was it, then, that young Elie Wiesel, who was taunted by his perpetrators that nobody would ever know or care what had happened to him and his people, how cruel was it that he encountered a world that again didn’t seem to care what he had gone through. When he was hawking that manuscript, did he feel somehow like Moshe the Beadle, a man who possessed the truth, but was ignored?
And yet none of this appears to have tamed the determination – or even the spark and sparkle – in and of Elie Wiesel. Night of course did eventually find its publishers and after several years, its readership did begin to grow, at first gradually, and then exponentially. Indeed, arguably no single work did so much to puncture the silence that had previously enveloped survivors, and bring what happened in the Night out into the light, for all to see. And yet. Injustice was still all around. Genocide denial against the Armenians, the horrors of his lifetime – Pol Pot, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, in his later years. He lived to see more and more people bear witness to unspeakable atrocities, but he also saw indifference remained too widespread.
Amid all the pain and disappointment of Elie’s remarkable life, how is it that the darkness did not envelop him, or shield him from the sun? How is it that the twinkle in Elie Wiesel’s eye was every bit as defining as his life’s experiences? “What is abnormal,” Elie once told Oprah Winfrey, “is that I am normal. That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.”
Elie raged against indifference to injustice, to be sure, but he also savored the gifts of life with ferocious zeal. “We know that every moment is a moment of grace,” he once said, “every hour is an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.”
Maybe it was because Elie had such a strong sense of purpose on his journey – to help those who could still be helped. A duty to his neighbor. To the stranger, the stranger that he once was. He called it his 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not stand idly by. You must speak up. You must defend. You must tell the victims, ‘You are not alone, somebody cares.’” Through the years, Elie ventured out to the most unlikely, isolated places. There was Elie in a tiny village along the Thai border with Cambodia, meeting with refugees who had just escaped the Khmer Rouge. There was Elie, crossing the jungle in Nicaragua on foot and in a kayak, to reach the Miskito Indians who had been driven from their land. “I,” Elie reflected later, “who have been known to lose my way in my own neighborhood and don’t know how to swim” travelled all that way to bear witness to their displacement and see how he could help. Now one might think that in these encounters Elie found only suffering, but he did not. He found meaning. Abe Foxman remembered visiting a school program in Tel Aviv that Elie and Marion had helped set up for undocumented children – one of many such initiatives they created, and Abe remembers seeing Elie singing and dancing with the kids, in pure, almost childlike joy.
Elie Wiesel often wrote of the anger within him. But what he projected most effortlessly was his love. Jews, Elie would often say, are a people of unparalleled gratitude – so much so, he pointed out, that they begin the day by thanking God for opening their eyes. Elie’s greatest joy came in the time with the people closest to him, especially Marion, Elisha, Elijah, and, of course, others here today.
A few years ago, when he was recovering from heart surgery, Elie was visited by his beloved grandson, Elijah, then just five years old. Here is how Elie described the encounter: “I hug [my grandson] and I tell him, ‘Every time I see you, my life becomes a gift.’ [Elijah] observes me closely as I speak and then responds: ‘Grandpa, you know that I love you, and I see you are in pain. Tell me: If I loved you more, would you be in less pain?’” Elie writes, “I am convinced God at that moment is smiling as He contemplates His creation.”
I am so very sad – I am so very sad that my children will not have the chance to talk metaphysics with the master. But before I close, let me offer another reason that God is smiling today. As our nation goes through difficult days, Night is a book that is firmly ingrained in that small canon of literature that kids and young adults read when they are growing up in America. Alongside Atticus Finch and Scout, one of the narrators that will have an early shot at shaping our children’s moral universe is 16-year-old Elie.
So while the void is enormous – above all, for Marion, Elisha, Elijah – and the void is enormous for our world, I, too, am filled with profound joy knowing that my seven-year-old boy and my four-year-old girl – like Elie’s grandkids, and their children after them – will wade into big questions for the first time with Elie Wiesel as their guide. That they will be less alone for having Elie with them. That Night will be one of the works that lays the scaffolding for their moral architecture. All because Elie Wiesel was optimistic enough to keep going – and to find the strength to shine his light on us all. Thank you.