When Elie Wiesel spoke, everyone listened

On every visit we lead to Auschwitz- Birkenau, we take a moment at the selection ramp, where those who arrived there were marked for life or for immediate death, and we read this extract:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Eight words were spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand; we were alone.

[…] And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking, my father held on to my hand.”

Ask any educator, or any participant, and they will tell you the same: that standing at that site, hearing those words taken from Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, it is almost impossible to bear.

This is the moment that Elie, like so many other victims of the Holocaust, was separated from his mother and sister not knowing what was to come.

Of all his writings, Night remains Elie Wiesel’s seminal work, read by millions around the world. His moving, candid and vivid descriptions of his experience in Auschwitz strike a chord. Elie wrote countless books, ranging from novels, to essays and personal testimony. He took it upon himself to be the voice for the voiceless. He demanded that we knew about and spoke of the tragedy that had befallen him and countless others.

But Elie’s influence and reach expanded far beyond the written word. He captivated audiences and inspired change – whether addressing students and teachers or politicians and diplomats, his charisma, his eloquence and his authority knew no bounds. He encouraged us to learn about the past whilst also compelling us to address injustice today.

In losing Elie Wiesel, a leader among men, we are reminded again how precious these eyewitnesses are. We are reminded that they will not be with us forever. We must treasure every moment, value every word and pass on their stories.

Elie was our honoured guest at our 20th anniversary Appeal Dinner in 2008. On our way to Banqueting House, we stopped at Number 10 Downing Street to meet the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister was unable to be at our event but was eager to meet the man he had heard and read so much about.

I will never forget standing in the Cabinet room hearing this incredible man in deep discussion about things ranging from the state of the economy (on the very night of the Lehman Brothers collapse) to the plight of people suffering across the world. The fact is, when Elie Wiesel spoke, everyone listened – including Prime Ministers.

Marion & Elie Wiesel with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown
Marion & Elie Wiesel with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown

At our Appeal Dinner, he met one of our Ambassadors, Ifraah Samatar, who promised him that she and her fellow Ambassadors would continue to work hard to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. He gave her a signed copy of ‘Night’ – something that she will always cherish.

Elie Wiesel once said “when you hear from a witness, you become a witness.” I know Ifraaah will carry his legacy, I will carry his legacy and, like the countless people whose lives he touched, we will forever be his witnesses.

About the Author
Karen Pollock is the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust (H.E.T.)