The Many Legacies of Elie Wiesel
A Moment Symposium
Yosef Abramowitz / Sara Bloomfield / Joseph Ciechanover / Patrick Desbois
Nadine Epstein / Martha Hauptman / Ted Koppel / Bernard-Henri Lévy / Chaim Peri
Mark Podwal / Dina Porat / Menachem Z. Rosensaft / Kali Rubaii / Dan Shapiro
Natan Sharansky / Leon Wieseltier and Elisha Wiesel
With the death of Elie Wiesel, the world has lost one of the most powerful voices of the past century. Wiesel first came to public attention in 1960 with the publication of the English translation of Night, a searing autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed and endured in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a teenager. For decades after, he persistently spoke out for the need to remember the Holocaust and against atrocities and genocides around the world. The Nobel committee recognized this work in 1986 by awarding Wiesel its prize for peace. The Nobel citation described him in prophetic terms: “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.”
Wiesel’s work with Moment, which he cofounded with Leonard Fein in 1975, played a special role in bringing that message to the Jewish people. He and Fein conceived of Moment as a source of enlightenment for the American Jewish community. Until the end of his life, Wiesel played a central role in the Moment family, serving on its board and always making himself available for advice. In the wake of his passing, Moment reached out to a group of distinguished humanitarians, scholars and personal friends, asking them to reflect on Wiesel’s legacy and share their memories of him. A stirring image emerged of Wiesel as a man of strong words and actions who never hesitated to stand up for what he believed in, and who always found time to share a joke or words of comfort with his friends.
Interviews by Sarah Breger, Marilyn Cooper, Anna Isaacs & George E. Johnson
Symposium Editor: Marilyn Cooper
There are, in each generation, only a few men and women who are able to perform the alchemy of converting pain, injustice and horror into love, tolerance and compassion. Elie was one such man.
Elie’s legacy is the lesson that all acts of inhumanity are similar. He was a passionate Jew, and the story he told in Night is uniquely his—that of the consequences of anti-Semitism run amok. And yet the lesson that Elie would have us all draw from the Holocaust in general, and Night in particular, is that intolerance and unbridled hatred of any people because of their race or religion or ethnicity is the ultimate evil.
Elie and I first met when he appeared as a guest on Nightline. My recollection is that he came on the program to draw public attention to the plight of Bosnians being slaughtered in the former Yugoslavia.
We soon became friends. He and his wife, Marion, visited our home. My wife, Grace Anne, and I visited his. We would call one another every few weeks. I would tell him jokes. I think I was one of only a few people who made him laugh. Then we would talk politics and sometimes religion.
In late December of 1999, Elie and Marion visited my wife and me at our home in Captiva, Florida. They spent a couple of nights with us, including the New Year’s Eve that took us into this new millennium. We talked through the end of 1999 and well into 2000. On the first day of the New Year, I convinced Elie that he needed to take up bicycling again. He hadn’t been on a bike since his childhood, he claimed. I threw a couple of bikes in the back of our rental car and took Elie to a secluded spot. He made it just about 20 yards before he crashed the bike. He was wearing shorts and one of his knees was bloodied. Our reaction? Laughter. We could both imagine the headlines: “Koppel injures Nobel Laureate.” To the best of my knowledge, Elie never rode a bike again.
Ted Koppel was the anchor for ABC’s Nightline from 1980 to 2005. He is currently a contributor to CBS News Sunday Morning. In 2004 he received the Paul White Award for lifetime contributions to electronic journalism.
I do not know if Elie Wiesel was a “great” writer. But I am convinced that he believed that a Jew of his ilk does not come into the world to pursue literature as a profession. His work has neither the inaccessible sublimity of Kafka nor the paradoxically lofty power of Proust—nor, perhaps, the laconic grace of Paul Celan. But he is one of the few to have spoken the unspeakable about the camps. He shares with Primo Levi and Imre Kertész (and how many others?) the terrible privilege of having felt six million shadows pressing against his frail silhouette in an effort to gain their almost imperceptible place in the great book of the dead. Countless lives were reduced to ash and smoke, sloughed into dust or filmy memory—they are lives of which there would have remained, without Wiesel, no name or trace.
His other great virtue, perhaps, is having ensured, through his work and henceforth in the minds of those inspired by that work, that the dark memory of that exception that was the Holocaust will not exclude—indeed, that the Holocaust requires—ardent solidarity with all of the victims of all other genocides.
The greatness of Elie Wiesel, in truth, was to have remained, to the end and under all circumstances, one of those humble Jews that he himself considered to be the crown of humanity.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French public intellectual and author of more than 30 books, including Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.
Elie Wiesel’s most important legacy was bringing real awareness of the Holocaust to the public consciousness. The great turning point for his work came during a speech he made in a White House ceremony in 1985, when he received the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement from President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was about to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where Nazi SS guards were buried. There was a great uproar about Reagan’s proposed visit, and people wondered what Elie Wiesel would say about it. When press attention started to build before the ceremony, the White House made efforts to contain the situation. There were attempts to limit the scope and content of Elie’s speech, and they moved the ceremony to a much smaller room. Even though I had designed the medal Elie was receiving, I, along with many others, was no longer able to attend the event.
Elie was not quelled, and in his speech that day he called on Ronald Reagan to cancel the visit, famously saying, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” NBC carried the speech live, and the next day it was quoted in headlines in all the major newspapers. Before that speech, many people had not read Night, and they really didn’t know who Elie Wiesel was. Elie said that day, and many times afterwards, that our Jewish tradition says that we must speak truth to power. I think that’s one of his main legacies—giving voice to the truth no matter what.
People have often remarked to me that Elie Wiesel always looked so pained and asked if he enjoyed life and if he ever laughed. Elie had a wonderful sense of humor and appreciated a good joke, but I can’t publicly repeat the best jokes he made! He always made time for his friends. Elie held my son at his circumcision and gave the sermon at his bar mitzvah. And he was very thoughtful and sensitive. When my mother died, Elie consoled me, saying, “Death is the price of life.” At Elie’s funeral, his son, Elisha, eulogized him by saying that Elie finally has the opportunity to ask God all the difficult questions. Knowing him, I am sure Elie will question God’s answers.
Mark Podwal is an artist and a dermatologist at the New York University School of Medicine. His drawings have appeared on The New York Times Op-Ed page and have been displayed in museums around the world.
We don’t yet know if Elie Wiesel will have a lasting legacy. During his life and at the time of his death, Elie Wiesel was the face of the Holocaust victim to the rest of the world. But today, there are already many teenagers who have no idea what happened to the Jews of Europe during the 20th century. Among the younger generations, many people simply have no idea what genocide really is. They do not know how different genocides, not just the Holocaust, have impacted and injured the world. Quite often, they are completely unaware these killings have occurred.
The Holocaust was not solely a Jewish story. Non-Jews were involved in all aspects of it. They were perpetrators of violence and victims of it. They rescued Jews and they persecuted Jews. World War II and the Holocaust impacted the entire world. We have to teach about Hitler, the Holocaust and survivors like Elie Wiesel because mass killings and genocides are still happening. Genocides didn’t end with the Holocaust.
The nature of human memory is that, in most senses, figures like Elie Wiesel are often gradually forgotten. Most people do not want to think about genocides. They do not want to think about the Holocaust or other mass killings. They are very uncomfortable with the fact that these events happened. So I believe there is a risk of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust and other genocides being forgotten. Without a real effort to retain their memory, they may simply disappear from history. Elie Wiesel was a light in the night for the whole world, not just the Jewish one. We should remember him.
Patrick Desbois is a French Roman Catholic priest and the founder of Yahad-In Unum, who received the Légion d´honneur, France’s highest honor, for his efforts to document the Holocaust. He is a professor at the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.
Top: Sarah with Elie and his sister Tzipora.
Bottom: Sarah Wiesel with Elie and his sisters, Hilda and Bea.
Elie Wiesel was a warrior against the destructive power of silence. He understood the obligation to speak out and, in all ways, to have a loud and active voice. He was the first to break the silence about the struggles of Soviet Jews. By writing The Jews of Silence (1966), he prevented world Jewry from remaining silent. He showed Jews that they had a choice. They could remain passive and quietly leave things just as they were, or they could speak out against what was happening to Soviet Jews.
He himself had a strong and loud moral voice. He was part of the collective movement for change as well as a leader in it. He was a great sage for the Jewish community, but he was also very much a part of the community. He wanted to be remembered for his work for Soviet Jewry as much as for the Holocaust. He viewed this work as a sign of what we Jews could do if we worked together. He felt deeply connected both to the roots of the struggle and to its success.
Elie Wiesel was very polite, very correct and very intelligent. He felt the responsibility of history on his shoulders. He was a mixture of a Jewish professor and a chazzan (cantor). He could speak in a very deep and philosophical way on any Jewish topic. Regardless of how famous he became, he continued to study and teach. He had a very sentimental connection to Yiddish. He wanted the Yiddish language to survive and thrive and was concerned that younger people should study it. On erev Shabbat, another side—the chazzan—would come out, and he would stop everything and sing Jewish melodies. He sang beautifully; it was very moving to listen to him. Whenever we were together on erev Shabbat, I would ask him to sing. Politically and personally, his voice reminded us of our past and taught us to always use our voices to build our future.
Natan Sharansky is a Soviet-born Israeli politician, human rights activist and author who spent nine years in Soviet prisons. He is currently the chairman of the executive for the Jewish Agency in Israel.
I always called him Professor Wiesel, even when we were friends, because he had a different air about him. I was a student and the leader of the anti-apartheid movement at Boston University, where Wiesel was a professor, and I finally got up the guts to walk into his office and sign up for his course. When I walked in, Martha Hauptman, his longtime assistant, looked up and said, “What took you so long?”
I had been a controversial figure on campus, as a Jew and a Zionist leading the anti-apartheid movement, and the president of the university was against me. Wiesel would see me in his office, and he would encourage me to keep coming and remind me that it is important to be on the right side of history as a Jew. Even when the university was trying to expel me, he was doing everything to strengthen my fortitude and moral outrage.
He loved teaching above all else. It gave him inspiration. He raised so many students, made time for his students. He was just like the Lubavitcher Rebbe meeting one-on-one with his Hasidim. Hundreds, maybe thousands, feel cherished among his students.
I don’t think anybody else in Jewish life did as good a job as Professor Wiesel of balancing the particular and the universal, of affirming the centrality and depth of Jewish values without giving in to narrow parochialism. No one had as much depth, nor a wider view of humanity, and he did all that as a Jew. Professor Wiesel felt it was his responsibility to be a bridge between the Jewish people and humanity. I think in an age of growing religious extremism and polarization in Jewish life, we are going to miss his example and the center of moral gravity that he represented.
Yosef Abramowitz is the president and CEO of Energiya Global Capital and cofounder of the Arava Power Company. He is a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a 2014 candidate for the president of Israel.
During the 27 years that I was Elie Wiesel’s personal assistant at Boston University, he taught and inspired more than 3,000 students. Not only did he instill a love of learning in them, but in some cases, he changed their lives. There was the student who came out of his office saying that Professor Wiesel had fixed something in her that she did not even know needed fixing, and the student who referred to his office as “sacred space.” Many talked about the intensity of the time spent with him, even though it might have been a mere ten minutes. Reinhold Boschki, who came to Boston from Tübingen, is one such student. During his course of study in Germany, someone gave him Night to read, and he arrived in Boston shortly thereafter to study with the “Master.” Since then, his life’s work has revolved around the Wiesel oeuvre and teaching the Holocaust to German university students. In 1995, he organized an international conference in Stuttgart, and he is now working on translating all of Elie’s work into German.
Elie left a very personal legacy with me. I remember his kindness when my mother was dying. Elie told me to stop coming to the office and that I should instead be with my mother in the hospital. So I was able to be with her during the last weeks of her life. I’ll never forget that; nothing was more important to him than my being with my mom.
Martha Hauptman was Elie Wiesel’s personal assistant at Boston University.
Elie—second row from the bottom, seventh from the left—looks out from the wooden bunks in Buchenwald.
In my mind, Elie Wiesel’s lasting legacy will be defined by four lessons:
First, the Shoah cannot be explained; rather, it must be grappled with. The Holocaust is almost unfathomable, given its scale, its brutality and its devastating impact on the Jewish people—and on humanity more broadly.
Just as Elie struggled for 70 years to understand how the Holocaust was allowed to unfold, how one could believe in God in its aftermath, and how we could fail to prevent future genocides, we all must grapple with these questions.
Second, Elie left behind a tremendous legacy in terms of his Jewish identity and his deep and abiding sense of Jewish peoplehood. Born in Romania, imprisoned by the Nazis, a Holocaust refugee who moved from Europe to Israel to America, Elie lived in many countries, but his Jewish identity never wavered. He was Jewish through and through, and yet he also managed to be a full and active member of American and international civil society. Elie taught us about Jewish identity and Jewish pride, and also about the importance of being engaged in the world.
Third, Elie taught us about the critical role of remembrance and our collective responsibility in this regard. He was a leading force behind the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Elie was the museum’s founding chairman and remained deeply involved for more than three decades.
Fourth, Elie taught us all to speak truth to power. As I was just becoming politically aware, his public stance on President Reagan’s visit to the cemetery in Bitburg was a model for how to express dissent in an open society.
In Israel, Elie Wiesel is widely admired. He represents resilience, perseverance and the indomitable Jewish spirit. He also represents personal tragedy, and this is something every Israeli feels.
In some sense—in a collective sense—Israel is a nation founded by survivors and refugees from persecution and political violence. Israelis could thus relate his personal story to their own national narrative. His story, like Israel’s, is a story of survival against impossible odds.
Dan Shapiro is the United States ambassador to Israel. He previously served as the senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the White House National Security Council.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft
The first aspect of Elie Wiesel’s legacy is to ensure that the memory of the Shoah, both its victims and survivors, becomes ingrained in the consciousness of humankind. In large part thanks to Elie, the Shoah is no longer viewed in abstract, impersonal terms, through statistics and through primarily German documentation. As a result of Elie’s writings and teachings, the perspective of the victims has become essential to the way we understand the Holocaust.
A second, equally important aspect of his legacy is a refusal to allow the Holocaust to be universalized. For a long time, there were efforts to minimize the Jewish nature of the genocide and to ignore that it was the culmination of thousands of years of anti-Semitism. The Shoah was viewed by many as just another war-related atrocity. But six million Jews were murdered exclusively because they were Jews—not because they were Poles, not because they were Hungarian, not because of their political views, but because they were Jews. That was an absolute line in the sand for him. It had to be understood that others who were murdered by the Nazis were killed in a different context. With the possible exception of the Roma and Sinti, there was no effort made to eradicate any other people or ethnic group from the face of the earth. At the same time, Elie insisted that the Shoah has universal implications. What he taught was that the identity of the victims of a genocide—any genocide—is essential to understanding the event, to giving it the dignity of proper remembrance. He made clear that the primary lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust is the need to fight against all forms of bigotry, xenophobia and hatred, and that silence is simply not an option.
The last major aspect of his legacy is his refusal to allow his experiences during the Shoah to dehumanize him or to embitter him. He retained and exuded a love for humankind. He did not allow himself to succumb to hatred or to retreat into an insular mindset. His approach to his readers and his audiences was always one of hope—one that provided light rather than darkness.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors. He edited God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors.
Top: Elie at the orphanage for Buchenwald child survivors in Ambloy, France in 1945.
Right: Elie on a ship to Israel in 1949.
Elie Wiesel’s main legacy is that one should study and learn about the Holocaust as a starting point for understanding minority rights, relations between different groups and democracy. He did not believe one should study and remember the Holocaust just for its own sake or only for the sake of the Jewish people. Rather, we should understand the Holocaust to improve the world. In particular, young people should think about evils of the past and then work to fix the world. He was a champion of human rights, in many cases in situations that didn’t relate to the Jewish people. He fought for human rights in Mongolia, Rwanda, South Africa, for Kurds and for Armenians. He was extraordinarily active in whatever was happening at a given time that related to human rights and human suffering.
His legacy, in certain ways, is a complicated one. Critics, here in Israel as well as elsewhere, have said that although he spoke out about human rights in so many places, he never criticized Israel or any of its policies and actions. He was often asked why he never spoke out about human rights violations in Israel. He said that since he did not live in Israel and was not a citizen of Israel, he did not have the right to criticize Israel. He stood unconditionally by Israel’s side. This stance is difficult to reconcile with his fighting so passionately for the rights of suffering people in so many different parts of the world. I think he saw the complexity of the Palestinian situation and how it was being politicized in parts of the world, and he did not want to be part of that.
Dina Porat is the chief historian at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. She is also the head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University.
In 2004, I won a high school essay contest about applying the lessons of Night to a contemporary issue, employing Elie Wiesel’s argument that the Holocaust, while unique, had universal implications. I wrote about enjoying the luxuries of American consumerism during the onset of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show with other winners and with Elie himself. He was lovely, grandfatherly, warm—exactly who you would expect him to be.
I was disheartened when I later learned of some of his positions on the Palestinians and, over time, I saw that he made exceptions to his own lessons. He called the Goldstone Report, which examined allegations of [Israeli] war crimes during the Gaza War, a “crime against the Jewish people.” I was surprised; was this not the kind of witness-bearing Elie so eloquently promoted?
Elie Wiesel’s ability to articulate the Holocaust, to imbue people with the obligation to bear the weight of memory, was powerful and important. But his political contradictions challenge us to accept that ideas can be bigger than their proponents. We don’t have to be paralyzed by the precondition of moral perfection to lend our support or to be inspired. Elie’s legacy forces contemplation. He offers us moral ambiguity, and I can work with that. Elie Wiesel inspired me to write and to work on behalf of Palestinians. His voice, to me, is a voice for their human rights—even if he couldn’t see it.
Kali Rubaii is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the cofounder of the Islah Reparations Project, a platform to give reparations to victims of war and occupation.
Top: Elie with President Ronald Reagan during a Holocaust remembrance ceremony at the White House in 1981.
Bottom: Elie teaching students at Boston University in 1982.
The Elie imprinted in my heart is an Elie of joy. Our connection came about thanks to his wife Marion’s devotion to Ethiopian children in Israel. Marion working for this cause with her whole being meant the world to Elie. He derived immense joy from her being at center stage, with him offering support from behind the scenes. Together, as a unit, they emitted an aura of softness and perfect reciprocity. Yet it was an active partnership, built of vision, spirit and the determination to handle any and all obstacles, including the most trifling bureaucracies. To me, Marion’s efforts had much more to them than meets the eye. I could tell that both she and Elie regarded the ingathering of this long-lost African Jewish tribe as the bright antipode to the darkest of the dark, the radiance of daytime following our people’s nightmarish past. When Marion established first-rate culture and learning centers in Israel, warm havens for Ethiopian children, they were named Beit Tzipora, the Home of Tzipora, for Elie’s little sister, who died in Auschwitz. It signaled the inclusion of the Ethiopian-Jewish cause in their most intimate circle. This was to be a home of happiness, of joie de vivre, of the life that Tzipora Wiesel never had. I vividly recall the festive opening of Beit Tzipora in Ashkelon. Elie stepped to a side room to join a minyan of young Ethiopians for the mincha prayer. I will never forget the elation I felt that moment, hearing Elie saying the Kaddish for Tzipora, his voice blending with children’s squeals of joy and merry music sounding from outside. Is there any better, or more tangible, affirmation of Jewish continuity?
Chaim Peri was the director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village for Immigrants in Israel for 30 years. He received Prime Minister Shimon Peres’s “Guardian of the Child” award.
Elie told me once that he was, first and foremost, a writer. He wanted to be remembered that way. At times his physical voice could be whisper-like, but the graceful written words he emptied onto pages each morning were anything but. There was strength in their resonance—poetry and honesty.
I never imagined that I would someday know Elie as a friend—or have the opportunity to breathe fresh life into a magazine he had cofounded. Elie loved that Moment carries on the torch of Jewish culture and expresses the tumult of Jewish thought, much like its namesake publication, Der Moment. In naming Moment for Der Moment, a popular independent Warsaw Yiddish daily founded in 1910 and extinguished by the Nazis in 1939, Elie was continuing a legacy. He often told me how, as a young yeshiva bocher in his hometown of Sighet, Der Moment was off-limits to him. He had watched his father read Der Moment and had seen it lying on the kitchen table, but had never touched it or the world beyond that it represented. Der Moment was one of the reasons, when after the Holocaust he no longer could envision a traditional religious path for himself, he chose to become a journalist.
Today’s Moment made Elie happy. He understood that it was far more than a monument to the past, that it was alive, inhaling ideas and exhaling them transformed, as good publications do. He valued this, and as someone who grappled with legacy more than most, he knew how hard it was to find the ever-shifting equilibrium between growth and tradition—and between journalism and Judaism. Moment is one of the many ways in which Elie will live on.
Nadine Epstein has been the editor and publisher of Moment since 2004.
Whether he was standing in front of a class, giving a speech, or meeting with people in the Middle East or Europe, wherever he was around the world, Elie Wiesel felt his role was to be a teacher. He would say that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was also a teacher. His role as an institution builder is under-recognized. It’s very important to list this among his extraordinary legacies because, without Elie Wiesel, it is hard to imagine the Holocaust Remembrance Movement. And without him and that movement, it is hard to imagine that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum would exist. As the head of the presidential commission to establish the museum and as its founding chairman, he had a very particular mission for the museum. And he was the only person who had the moral authority to envision and to articulate what became the soul of the museum.
In the early years of developing the museum, people struggled with the question, “Would it be Jewish, or would it be universal, and would the Holocaust lose some of its uniqueness?” It was Elie’s vision, his moral clarity, his intellect and his eloquence that said it was both. The Holocaust was both a universal event, a cataclysm for all mankind, and a very specifically unique Jewish event. He called the museum a living memorial. Elie said, “It’s our conviction that when any one people is targeted and engulfed in the fire, all humanity is engulfed.” And this museum is really a museum about humanity. That did not at all diminish Jewish specificity, and it helped us shape how we communicated that Jewish specificity to very broad and diverse audiences.
If you wanted to boil down everything to its essence with Elie, the biggest sin was indifference. He felt that indifference was a bigger sin than hate and evil. So he himself had to lead his life that way. That meant speaking truth to power. The labels attributed to him—author, teacher, activist, thinker—are all under that idea of “voice.” But for him, voice was action. Voice was using words to inspire, but also to always speak out on behalf of the voiceless, to give voice to them, whether they were the six million or the people in Sarajevo, to do for others what was not done for the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.
Sara Bloomfield is director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She serves on the International Auschwitz Council and on the advisory board of the Robert Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at the New York University School of Law.
After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December of 1986, Elie flew to Israel to meet with the wives of refuseniks.
I knew Elie Wiesel for over 45 years. A mutual friend introduced us during one of my trips to New York. Since that time, we had a very close relationship. A week never passed without us speaking at least once on the telephone and exchanging views on current events.
Elie’s spoken voice has now been silenced, but his words in the more than 50 books that he wrote and speeches that he delivered will always remain present.
The legacy he left us is to not let the Holocaust of the Jewish people in the 20th century be forgotten or denied.
Elie was a staunch defender of the State of Israel, fighting for its right to exist as a home for the Jewish people. It was inconceivable to him that Israel should be attacked for defending its right to exist.Joseph Ciechanover has served as the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, head of Israel’s Defense Mission to the United States and Canada and general counsel to the Israel Ministry of Defense.
Elie established the moral and spiritual primacy of the survivor. Survivors have a perspective, a point of regard, that the rest of us, the fortunate ones, do not share. For this reason, survivors often feel misunderstood and isolated, even in their own families and communities. Elie described and explained the standpoint of the survivor to the world. He did so precisely and eloquently and indefatigably. Since the modern era is, among other things, the golden age of genocide, Elie’s work is essential to an understanding of our times. We need to understand survivors because there is no indication that history is becoming any kinder.
Elie knew how to speak particularly to, and about, his own people, and he also knew how to speak to, and about, other peoples. The antinomy of particularism and universalism that tormented so many other writers and thinkers did not torment him at all. He was, effortlessly and in the same instant, in the same breath, particular and universal. He championed the memory of the Holocaust and he insisted that its memory is relevant to the proper moral and historical assessment of other genocides as well. He was a man of his people and a man of the world.
Elie was a complete Jew. He knew the entirety of his tradition in all of its genres and its languages, and he was thoroughly at home in it. His Hebrew and his Yiddish were exquisite. He kindled most intensely, of course, to the Hasidic masters. His acquaintance with the literature and the legends of Hasidism was astonishing. Each of the old masters lived for him, and so he made them live for others. When I would excitedly report to Elie on a discovery I had made in a Hasidic work, he always already knew it, and he proceeded to deepen my grasp of the text. His devotion to this literature was in part a great salvage operation, his attempt to rescue from oblivion the culture in which he was reared. Hasidic Jewry, remember, was almost completely decimated in the Holocaust. But beyond his sense of duty to this tradition, it also filled him—this tradition of joy—with a lifetime’s worth of mental and spiritual joy.
Some years ago I brought Elie to my son’s school in Washington, DC. His presence electrified the students; his charisma, the spiritual and historical suggestiveness of that beautiful melancholy face, never left him. It had been arranged for him to speak to the older students in the library of the school, but no sooner did he begin his remarks than he abruptly halted them, and suddenly he began to sing. The gift that he had brought the students was a wrenching Hasidic nigun (song) from his childhood. Nobody who was in that room on that morning will ever forget it. His Jewish lyricism just burst right out of him. He was a profoundly soulful man.
Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The Atlantic.
Top: Elie with President Bill Clinton and Bud Meyerhoff, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council during the dedication ceremony for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on April 22, 1993.
Bottom: Elie with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Whenever I want to hear my father’s voice, I can pick up a book from my bedside and I can hear him speak.”
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