Listening to Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel was born in a small village in Romania on September 30, 1928. He had the traditional upbringing of an Eastern European Jew in pre-World War II Europe. His Jewish faith and his family were at the center of young Wiesel’s life. This life was lost forever in 1944, when 15-year old Wiesel and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz in Poland. His mother and a sister were gassed to death and his father died of starvation in detention. Wiesel was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp where, on April 11, 1945, he was finally liberated by American troops. For years he dealt with the trauma of this experience by maintaining a silence. After studying at the Sorbonne and working as a journalist, Wiesel broke this silence with the haunting book, The Night. Wiesel’s prose is poetic in describing he jolting experience of his brutal detention. Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. Since then, Wiesel has acted as a moral sentry guarding the memory of those years. He has used his influence on behalf of Jews persecuted in the former Soviet Union and oppressed peoples elsewhere. He has always made clear that the victims of the Holocaust will win an ultimate victory only if we the living never forget the horrors of those years; if we never forget the depravity and evil to which a modern civilized nation can fall; and if we never forget that “…to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…” For his work, Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Wiesel is not the typical self-congratulatory moral nag à la Jimmy Carter, rather he is a quiet moral conscience. He is confident that if good people are presented directly with the proper moral choice, they will generally choose to do the right thing. This makes his moral authority that much more compelling. Unfortunately, this quiet moral force did not work in 1985, in what in retrospect remains a clear mistake by Ronald Reagan. In 1985, Ronald Reagan planned to visit Germany to celebrate the fact that since World War II the Germans and the Americans had managed to nurture a friendly and peaceful relationship, becoming steadfast allies. Sometime after the visit was planned, it became apparent that a German cemetery Reagan planned to visit contained not only the remains of typical German soldiers but also the graves of the notorious Waffen SS. A clearly pained Wiesel explained to Reagan “I am convinced … that you were not aware of the presence of SS graves in the Bitburg cemetery. Of course you didn’t know. But now we are all aware. May I … implore you to do something else, to find another way, another site. That place, Mr. President, is not your place.” An equally pained Reagan, was torn between his desire to assuage the feelings of an important ally, while at the same time avoiding the terrible symbolism of an American president paying respect at the graves of SS troops. Reagan unfortunately chose to visit Bitburg cemetery. According to the New York Times, “President Reagan’s regret at having promised such a cemetery tribute was palpable. He walked through it with dignity but little reverence. He gave the cameras no emotional angles. All day long he talked of Hell and Nazi evil, to submerge the event … Not even Mr. Reagan’s eloquent words before the mass graves of Bergen-Belsen could erase the fact that his visit there was an afterthought, to atone for the inadvertent salute to those SS graves.” We are now faced with a new and far more consequential moral choice. Do we allow a vicious Fascist dictator, who has used weapons of mass destruction and been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths to use dilatory tactics and the natural reluctance of democracies for war to avoid disarmament? Recently, Elie Wiesel made the observation that “If there had been a united front and Saddam Hussein didn’t think he could win through public opinion, he would give in and there’d be no war.” Wiesel concluded, “Saddam Hussein is a murderer. He should be indicted for crimes against humanity for what he has done… I am behind the president totally in his fight against terrorism. If Iraq is seen in that context, I think [Bush] can make a case for military intervention.” Wiesel remembers the cost and has personally paid the price of not dealing with aggressive dictators soon enough. It is clear that France, Germany, and many of those protesting the potential for war with Iraq have forgotten such costs and seem to believe that freedom and safety are natural gifts requiring no special protection. It is clear that many who oppose the Bush efforts in Iraq are doing so out of constructive concern and genuinely positive motives. Nonetheless, one would hope that these people would also have sufficient self-awareness to be terribly torn and concerned by the obvious fact that their actions of protest and disunity remain the sole encouragement for an isolated, murderous, and Fascist dictator.

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