Review of “Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy” edited by Nadine Epstein

This moving collection of speeches by Wiesel, pictures of him, and essays about him by others pays tribute to the life of Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2, 2016.

Eliezer Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania, and was deported to Auschwitz in Poland by the Nazis in 1944. There his mother and sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers. He and his father were put in a work camp, and later sent on a death march to concentration camps in Germany in advance of the Allied armies. They ended up in Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Elie’s father died in late January, 1945. His last word was “Eliezer.”

His father missed his freedom by three months. The Soviet Allies had reached Auschwitz eleven days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. On April 11, American tanks arrived at the gates, and Buchanwald was liberated by the United States Army. Elie was 16.

Elie Wiesel (circled) in Buchenwald a few days after the camp was liberated

In 1955 Elie wrote a book about his experiences in the concentration camps, first in Yiddish and then translated (by him) into French. An abridged version of the memoir was published in English in 1958, called Night. The book would eventually be translated into 35 languages. He went on to write 56 more books, as well as to deliver talks around the world in defense of human rights.

In the Foreword to this tribute, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

“Whatever he did and wherever he went, Elie carried with him six million fragments of our people. He was the voice of memory when others sought to forget.”

It may seem like too much of a burden for one man, but as essayist and Wiesel biographer Joseph Berger observed, Wiesel told him “I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. That was their obsession, to be remembered.” More than anyone else, Berger averred, Elie Wiesel made sure the six million would be remembered.

But he had another message to impart as well.

Sara Bloomfield writes:

“If you wanted to boil down everything to its essence with Elie, the biggest sin was indifference. He felt that indifference was a bigger sin than hate and evil. So he himself had to lead his life that way. That meant speaking truth to power. . . for him, voice was action.”

Ronald S. Lauder said he still hears Elie’s voice, “telling us what he would say to anyone who would listen: that people of good conscience have a moral obligation to speak out, be heard and fight bigotry.”

Many of the essays about Wiesel were written by people who were influenced by him to alter their career paths or to change other important life decisions. They felt embraced by him, inspired by him, and gained courage from his example.

People looked to Wiesel to deliver some insights into the nature of evil in the world and how to understand it. Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God in the face of all the other suffering in the world? Michael Berenbaum said that it took Wiesel until the 1990s to make peace with God. But he did so; the cantor who conducted his funeral service said that “Elie was a man of profound faith and sincerity…”

Weisel, in an interview with Nadine Epstein in 2013 included in the book, spoke about his relationship with God, saying:

“. . . with God, the question, ‘Where is God?’ has obsessed me for many years and still does without an answer.’ But, he explained, he remained profoundly attached to his parents and grandparents and thought ‘What good do I do them if I say goodbye to God?’”

In a 1972 commencement address he urged graduates to have faith in spite of the mystery of God. He said:

“. . . anyone who tells you he has the answers to the questions — with all apologies to your teachers — I do not believe them. There are no answers to true questions. There are only good questions, painful sometimes, exuberant at others. Whatever I have learned in my life is questions. And whatever I have tried to share with friends is questions.”

As “The Economist” pointed out in its obituary for Wiesel, the questions about God never stopped for him:

“His Talmud-studying childhood had been devoted to God, but where had God been in the camps? Why had He allowed Tzipora, the little golden-haired sister, to die for nothing? Why had He caused old men to fall down from dysentery on forced marches, when they might have died peacefully in their beds? Why had God created man, if only to abandon him? What exactly did God need man for?

. . . He railed at God, and yet still strapped on his tefillin and recited his prayers as fervently as he had done on the day of his bar mitzvah. For ritual, too, was part of memory. And besides, how could he ever get closer to the mystery of God, unless he battered Him with his doubts?”

He may not have had answers about God, but he did have opinions on mankind. In an interview with David Axelrod in 2013, Axelrod asked him how he still believed in God in light of the Holocaust. Wiesel replied in effect, “Why look at God?  Why not look at man?”

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel speaks with David Axelrod at the University of Chicago in 2013. (University of Chicago Institute of Politics / YouTube)

Elie Wiesel seemed to reflect that school of Jewish thought that holds that God created mankind, gave them rules by which to live, and then left them to it. In the face of evil, the emphasis should not be on asking “Where is God?” [i.e., “passing the theological buck” to a deity who has given us free will, per Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg] but on putting the responsibility for evil on human beings. Rabbi Ruttenberg points out, just as Elie Wiesel might have said himself, that it is human beings who have the power to build gas chambers or dismantle them, or to stand idly by and do nothing.

In a speech he gave at the White House on April 12, 1999 reproduced in this book, Wiesel said that indifference was more dangerous than anger and hatred:

“…indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. . . . in denying their humanity we betray our own.”

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, at which time the Committee called him a “messenger to mankind,” stating that through his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps,” as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace,” Wiesel had delivered a message “of peace, atonement, and human dignity” to humanity.

An Afterword by Ted Koppel sums up Wiesel’s character by way of explaining why he would never have made a good President of the United States:

“He would have been incapable of the shallowness, the sheer nastiness. Elie Wiesel could never have adjusted to the constant demands of moral compromise. He was, simply, an unwavering symbol of uncompromising decency.”

Discussion: Perhaps there is no better time for this book to be published. It is not only that the incidence of anti-Semitic acts been on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League reported an increase of nearly 60 percent in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017 in the U.S. The French Interior Ministry observed that anti-Semitic incidents in France jumped by 74 percent in 2018. In addition, alarming figures disclosed by CNN document widespread lack of knowledge about the Holocaust:

“Ignorance about the Holocaust is growing, particularly among young people. In the United States, a 2018 survey showed that 66% of millennials could not identify what the Auschwitz concentration and death camp was.

A recent CNN poll in Europe revealed that about a third of the 7,000 European respondents across seven countries knew ‘just a little or nothing at all’ about the Holocaust. In France, nearly 20% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust.”

This shocking amount of unfamiliarity with what happened in the not too distant past puts not only Jews at risk, but even the idea of what civilization should be, and how different right is from wrong (as opposed to, say, the amoral assessment of Neo-Nazis versus protestors as consisting of “good people on both sides”).

Today we even have heard Trump supporters on the right, such as the one cited here, arguing that Hitler “just wanted to make Germany great again.”

We desperately need the reminder provided by this book about the twisted ideologies, fear, and prejudice that led to this horrifying lapse of humanity. Elie Wiesel, as Rabbi Sacks stated, “was the voice of memory when others sought to forget. …” There is so much danger in forgetting. In honoring Wiesel, we honor that memory just as we honor life more than its destruction from hate.

Evaluation: It would be hard to exaggerate how inspirational this book is. Elie Wiesel, as Ted Koppel said, converted pain, injustice, and horror into love, compassion, and tolerance. This tribute does not focus on the horror, however, but on the steps Wiesel took to fight silence and indifference, and to advocate for “tikkun olam,” the Jewish concept of social action and the pursuit of social justice to “heal the world.” Tikkun olam asks people to take ownership of their world instead of looking to God to do it. Wiesel was a living embodiment of, and advocate for, the necessity for humanity repairing the world through justice and righteousness.

This book would make an excellent gift for everyone you know, but especially, for everyone you love.

Rating: 5/5

Published by MomentBooks, an imprint of Mandel Vilar Press, 2019

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2 Responses to Review of “Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy” edited by Nadine Epstein

  1. Mystica says:

    The “ignorance” statistics are frightening.

  2. Beth F says:

    Indifference is indeed the biggest sin. I need to buy a copy of this for my shelves.

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