The first time I heard Prof. Elie Wiesel speak was in the Reform Synagogue in Westfield, NJ sometime during my last year in high school in 1973-1974. Already at that time he was a well-known personality and I greatly looked forward to hearing him. I can no longer remember exactly what he said, but I do remember that he made quite an impression on all of the listeners and that the synagogue was packed.
The next time I encountered Wiesel was in Budapest in 1982. I was a doctoral student searching for documents for my PhD thesis about the Holocaust in Hungary, and I was studying Hungarian. Wiesel came to speak in the Neolog Rabbinic Seminary (the only such functioning institution behind the Iron Curtain), and when he finished I approached him. To my amazement, he said that he knew I was there, since he had recently spoken to my advisor, Prof. Yehuda Bauer, who had mentioned he had a graduate student in Budapest at the time. I was flattered to think that Elie Wiesel had heard of me, since by then I had read his books and he had become even more famous.
Over the years I had occasion to hear Wiesel speak at Yad Vashem in various forums and engage him in short conversations. In 1997 I was asked to guide him and some of his guests through it. It must admit the idea of guiding Elie Wiesel through a Holocaust History Museum struck me as a bit odd at the time, but apparently he had asked for someone to take him around.
As we walked through the museum and I explained it to my guests, every once in a while I would invite Wiesel to comment. I don’t remember all of his comments, but I do remember two things very clearly. At the photograph that shows young men in a bunk at Buchenwald, I asked him if he is really in the picture, since another survivor once suggested to me that he was not there. He answered unequivocally that he was in the photograph. The other thing I remember is looking at his eyes as we went through the exhibit. They seemed to speak volumes and reflect everything he had experienced.
To most of the world, Elie Wiesel came to symbolize and represent all Shoah survivors. His emergence as such an icon coincided with and perhaps contributed to the evolution in how people came to regard Holocaust survivors, eventually showing them much honor and respect. Yet Wiesel represented not only the survivors; he also represented the murdered Jews. In his autobiography, he wrote of dreaming about his murdered family members as if they were still with him and suggested that the dreams might be reality.
Wiesel was a clarion voice who articulated the importance of understanding not only the major messages associated with the Holocaust, but also the importance of viewing deeply meaningful human events from eye-level. His voice contributed very significantly to the idea that when we teach, we must not only address overarching concepts but demonstrate that history is first and foremost about people.
Wiesel spoke out robustly about the moral dimensions of the Holocaust. From this it is clear that we must all act, especially in diplomacy, with respect for human life as our guide. He bolstered the principle that the Holocaust education must include values that respect human life, freedom and plurality. Lastly, Wiesel was instrumental in ensuring that within the universal discussion of the Holocaust’s meaning, its Jewish epicenter would not be overlooked. Thus, he added his compelling voice to those of us who emphasize that the Holocaust was a particular event with Jews at its vortex, but with implications relevant to all people, everywhere.
The passing of Elie Wiesel is symbolic of the passing of his generation. We, who research, teach and foster the commemoration of the Holocaust must now redouble our efforts to continue the mission that he and others of his generation bequeathed to us. May his memory be blessed and his legacy remain a beacon to all of humankind.
Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front, Yad Vashem 2013, and co-editor with Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto of After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters after Liberation, soon to be published by Yad Vashem.