On three occasions I had the opportunity to hear Elie Wiesel speak. In each case, I remember the power of his words, the way the room—even with thousands in attendance—stilled to hear his talk, to focus on his message. For many of us, his books, especially Night, are ones we have read and re-read with words and phrases that will remain with us for all time.
The death of Elie Wiesel silences a voice that for so long was identified with the Holocaust, with educating countless people, with teaching new generations about an era in our Jewish history that we must never forget. His passing is a loss for the Jewish world and for the world as a whole.
For me, Wiesel’s death reminds me of all of the survivors of the Holocaust whom I have known through my work with older adults. Some of them, as Wiesel did, would tell their stories and freely share their experiences, wanting to be sure that the world knew, that their testimony provided records of the atrocities that took place. Others refused to talk about it, keeping their memories locked deep inside, not wanting to share the horrors that they endured.
These survivors are now in the later years of their lives. There are many efforts underway, by Holocaust museums and others, to capture their stories, to retain these memories as a way of ensuring that the message of “never again” continues. It is an ongoing and difficult mission but it is a necessary one to record, preserve and share these personal histories.
The survivors represent a shrinking group of individuals who have witnessed humanity at its worst and, somehow, managed to live. They are a testimony to the strength of the human spirit.
Many of our older adults, those who are and those who are not Holocaust survivors, have powerful stories to tell. They have stories of growing up in difficult times or military service or family challenges. They have stories of love and loss, of success and failure, of life in an era far different than our own.
How often do families wonder about those stories after their loved one has died—or when disease or disability has taken away the ability to tell those stories? How many times did all of us change the subject, roll our eyes or just tune out when someone told us a story from “long ago.” All those stories are our history, the history of our families and the history of times gone by.
As we spend time during this holiday season with our families, it is an opportunity to listen to those memories, to ask for them, to find a way to preserve them for ourselves and future generations. We all have a lot to learn from the past—can we find a way to capture it?