Memory was the most vital element of Elie Wiesel’s life. That’s why such institutions as Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, and Israel’s Yad Vashem were so dear to him. Especially Yad Vashem.
“Yad Vashem is the most important center of Jewish memory in the world simply because it is in Jerusalem,” he said when he was honored by the museum in 1994 in New York.
What is it that moves every visitor at Yad Vashem? He said it happens when you come out of the museum. You are not staying in the place that symbolizes the darkness of humanity. But you see Jerusalem, the future of the Jewish people.
“Yad Vashem is essential to Jerusalem,” he said. “Without one part of our history, the other will fail. You need to remember both.”
He recalled how sad he was after the war when he realized that the world was in no mood to remember what happened. He said that his first Holocaust book, “Night,” didn’t sell 2,000 copies. His publisher told him that people don’t want to buy the book because they don’t want the children to read it.
“It was impossible then to speak about that period. I understood. Why should parents burden their children with such stories?”
At an Israel Bonds dinner in 1990 in New York, Wiesel told the sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors in the audience that he wrote “Night” (which eventually became a huge bestseller) not for the world. “I did not have that much trust in the world that they would understand. I wrote it for your parents. They did not want to talk about it. They would only talk among themselves.”
He showed that it was important to write about it, to remember the past. As he put it: “I don’t believe in fanaticism, nor do I believe in hate. But I do believe in memory.”
Wiesel died July 2 at his home in Manhattan at age 87.
Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. At the same time he has been a columnist for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years, and editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com for 17 years. He is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.