In the foreword of the new translation of his book Night Elie Wiesel wrote:
“In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer—or my life, period—would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
Like most American teenagers I encountered the words of Elie Wiesel in an English class. The stark white cover, Wiesel’s name in blue lettering, a shadowed image of barbed wire obscuring a singular figure: we were two years from my first visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (of which Wiesel was the founding chairman) and while I knew about the horror in abstraction, this was the first witness testimony I had ever read.
I remember later, standing at the front of a small plain classroom during a forensics competition, short repetitive phrases tripping over my tongue. And as I recited Wiesel’s words I knew I could never really see his reality, but understood that I was channeling an essential message, one that needed to be shared.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
I was sixteen, Wiesel’s age in Night, and without a lot of life experience to my name. Now, at thirty-three, I know just how Wiesel’s words and his life influenced my developing worldview. I learned about propaganda, hatred, and survival. I learned about humanity and kindness. I learned that the choices we make are paramount, and that luck is as much of a driver as fate.
But most off all I learned that this man, Elie Wiesel, represented the best that humankind has to offer.
And with his passing I want to bear witness for him. That we are beholden to his memory, and the memory of so many others who have perished in genocide and hate all across the world to not be silent. To never forget. To honor the dead and protect the living. As he states in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
“This is what I say to the young Jewish boy wondering what I have done with his years. It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude as one who has emerged from the Kingdom of Night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray then.
Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all who need us desperately.”
Thank you Elie Wiesel. Thank you for telling us your history. We are the better for it.