Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, writer, and Nobel laureate who died Saturday at age 87, not only shaped how the world remembers the Holocaust, but how the memory of atrocity can help prevent future tragedies.
Born in Romania in 1928, Wiesel was taken along with his family to the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel’s mother, sister, and father died in the camps. Wiesel was freed when Buchenwald was liberated in 1945. Ten years later, he wrote about his experience in his book Night.
The book, as well as Wiesel’s subsequent writings and work as an educator, was influential in building the collective post-war memory of the Holocaust. It was a memory that Wiesel infused with lessons on the dangers of indifference.
“I think that Elie believed that the greatest memorial that you could do for the victims would be to save lives in the future and to do so in memory of the victims,” says U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield.
“The Holocaust was a period when the world was silent—the world essentially abandoned the Jews of Europe for the most part,” Bloomfield says. She adds that Wiesel “felt that the fact of his own survival meant that he had to go on and make sure” that the world would not abandon any other groups faced with a similar horror.
For his work, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
"Only human beings can move me to despair," Wiesel told National Geographic in 2006. "But only human beings can remove me from despair."
Bloomfield spoke to National Geographic about Wiesel, whom she calls “a singular moral voice, [and] a man of great intellect and eloquence who lent his own very powerful voice to people who had been silenced forever.”
How did Wiesel’s writing and work in education enhance the memory and understanding of the Holocaust?
When Night was published in 1955, that was really a watershed moment. It was at a time when the Holocaust really hadn’t penetrated public consciousness the way it has today. I think you can attribute much of the global movement for Holocaust memory to the publication of Night and to Elie’s other writings to bring it to the forefront of not only awareness but of our moral conscience. He wanted to prick the moral conscience as much as possible.
That memory seems essential not only in helping people understand, but in preventing something like the Holocaust from ever happening again.
When he talked about the museum, he envisioned it as a living memorial that would speak as much to the future as it did to the past. Elie often said, “My life is devoted to making sure no one else’s future would be like my past.” He felt also that the museum’s position here in Washington, D.C., was so important because the lessons of the Holocaust speak very powerfully in this particular city, because these are lessons about the fragility of freedom, the dangers of hatred, and the consequences of indifference.
What were conversations with him like?
For all his accomplishments and his many honors and recognitions, he was a remarkably humble and gracious and very dignified human being. Very understated, warm personality. I would go to him for advice from time to time, and he would say, “Sara, I’m here to help you. You tell me whatever I can do to help. That’s my job, to help you."
How much has his work shaped the way the Holocaust is taught in schools and how museums are put together and the mission of those museums?
Night is an iconic book. Most people have it as a reference point. For many it’s their first introduction. Many of Elie’s quotes from Night and other speeches and dedications here at the museum really communicate many of these lessons I’ve talked to you about today. He often said—and I’m not going to get these words right—indifference is the greatest sin in the world. There will always be evil people, but they will count on the indifference of others. The challenge that the Holocaust is to all of us is never to be indifferent. Never to be a bystander.
How can his legacy best be preserved?
I think the museum and his writings, of course, which speak so much to the past but also to the future as he wanted them to, I think they will carry on his legacy. We live in a world where the lessons that Elie taught us are very, very relevant today.
Did he say anything pointing out the relevance of those lessons in the last few decades?
When you look at when the museum opened in 1993, as he spoke at the dedication ceremony, he talked about his mother and he talked about her life and her horrible death in the Holocaust, and then, invoking her memory and the failure of the world to save her, he turned around and challenged the newly elected President Clinton that he had to confront ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
I think that speaks to exactly what Elie Wiesel stands for and the continued relevance of his message.
This interview was edited and condensed.