It is rare for a person whom we have never met face-to-face to touch us so profoundly that our lives are changed yet, there are a gifted few who seem to change the lives of everyone they touch.
Elie Wiesel was one of those gifted people, and it is with a very heavy heart that I remember and honor him today.
I clearly remember the first time I was introduced to Elie Wiesel’s work. I was a camper, maybe 10 or 11 years old, at OSRUI (Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, the Wisconsin equivalent of GUCI, Goldman Union Camp Institute) and had taken ill. I was in the infirmary and needed something to do until I was well enough to rejoin the rest of the campers.
Someone handed me a slim book – around 100 pages long – and suggested it would be a good way to use my time. Always an avid reader, I began to read. I was soon captivated and couldn’t put the book down.
If I had heard of the Holocaust before I read Night, I certainly didn’t understand the first thing about it, and it held no significance to me. The image of the “sad-eyed angel” left an indelible impression. To this day, half a century after I first read the words, I can see the prisoners filing into the camp and standing before the gallows, forced to watch the execution of three people, one of them a young boy.
After Night, came Dawn. And after Dawn, many more. Each artfully crafted and eloquently written. Each raising awareness. Each delving into the human soul and each admonishing us that it is immoral to remain silent – that silence in the face of evil is complicity.
A few years later, a high school English teacher instructed us to pick a book and write a paper about it. I asked to write about Wiesel’s Gates of the Forest. The teacher had never heard of Wiesel and loathed to give me permission to write about it. Read Albert Camus’ The Plague, he said. I did, but I was angry and frustrated that the teacher refused to consider this important work.
At one point, while I was still in high school, I wrote a letter to Wiesel and he answered it. I was in surprised and delighted. I believe I still have the letter to this day.
In college, I finally got to write that paper about Wiesel’s books. The world was coming to understand what I had recognized so long before.
His message burned within me. We cannot be silent in the face of evil. So, in college, I wasn’t silent. I was an organizer for the movement to free Soviet Jewry. In fact, my husband’s first memory of me is as I took a petition for Soviet Jewry from table at our very unJewish dorm.
The first time I heard Wiesel speak in person was at a congregation in Memphis, TN, shortly after David and I were married. We drove 60 miles on rural Arkansas roads to get to Memphis, and it was worth it. After his formal remarks, he asked those who were working to free Soviet Jews to join him in a smaller room for additional remarks. I no longer remember what he said, but I remember the pride I felt in being part of that group.
I was privileged to hear him speak once again when the Jewish Community Federation brought the famed writer, who by then had won the Nobel Prize, to Louisville for a Major Gifts Dinner.
While I was on track to be a writer long before I heard of Elie Wiesel, and I have always had a deep and abiding love of Judaism and its directives to work for tikkun olam, the repair of the world, I have no doubt that Elie Wiesel played a significant role in making me the person I am today.
I hope that I will never be silent in the face of evil. And today, when I look at my daughter, I know that she, too, has learned that lesson.
Elie Wiesel, you have made a profound difference in this world, and, though you are no longer here to bear witness and to witness the good that you have wrought, your written words, your legacy, will continue to touch people’s souls and build a better world for generations to come. Zichroncha l’vracha. May your memory be for blessing.