Elie Wiesel's undy­ing mes­sage: Don't just memo­ri­alise, act

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - SARA J BLOOMFIELD news­room@mm­times.com

IN 1973, five years be­fore US Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter would ap­point Elie Wiesel to chair a com­mis­sion to de­ter­mine how the United States should memo­ri­alise the Holo­caust, Mr Wiesel was al­ready a prom­i­nent au­thor and thinker.

On the other side of the planet, I was an untested mid­dle-school English teacher in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, fresh out of an Amer­i­can col­lege. No one could have pre­dicted that 20 years later we would be to­gether at the open­ing of the US Holo­caust Memo­rial Mu­seum in Wash­ing­ton, DC.

But some­thing hap­pened in Syd­ney that per­haps fore­shad­owed our com­mon des­tiny. It was an event that for­ever changed my stu­dents – and me. I chose to have them read Wiesel’s iconic Holo­caust mem­oir Night in hopes that it might ad­dress – and ame­lio­rate – some of the ram­pant prej­u­dice among my stu­dents in this multi-eth­nic, work­ing-class com­mu­nity, teem­ing with im­mi­grants and re­sent­ments. In­deed, they were deeply moved.

They were also shocked to dis­cover that I was a Jew. They had never be­fore seen one and were as­ton­ished that I was so “nor­mal”.

It was a trans­for­ma­tive mo­ment for all of us. And “trans­for­ma­tive” is the word that de­fines the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2 at the age of 87. His mem­oir has trans­formed mil­lions of peo­ple world­wide. His vi­sion for the mu­seum was as an in­sti­tu­tion that would trans­form the liv­ing by re­mem­ber­ing the dead. In 2005, Elie and I trav­elled to Ro­ma­nia, where he was in­stru­men­tal in trans­form­ing that na­tion from one that de­nied its com­plic­ity in the Holo­caust – Ro­ma­nia is sec­ond only to the Ger­mans in the num­ber of Jews it killed – to one that now hosts an Elie Wiesel In­sti­tute de­voted to Holo­caust re­search and ed­u­ca­tion.

In 1986, the No­bel Com­mit­tee called Elie a “mes­sen­ger to mankind”. While that is true, it is not com­plete. He was one of the few whose mes­sage was not just de­liv­ered, but heard – if, sadly, too rarely heeded. I sensed that one of the great sor­rows of Elie’s life was the fail­ure of the world in the face of geno­cides in Bos­nia, Rwanda and Dar­fur. He recog­nised that giv­ing a voice to vic­tims was nec­es­sary but in­suf­fi­cient. Ac­tion was re­quired.

But it was Elie’s sin­gu­lar voice – a voice whose moral clar­ity res­onated with mil­lions from all walks of life – that was his hall­mark. He also boldly en­vi­sioned the mu­seum as a voice. He called it a “liv­ing memo­rial”. For him, mem­ory was sa­cred but it also had to have a pur­pose. He saw the mu­seum as a unique moral plat­form that would serve as an an­ti­dote to one of the world’s gravest prob­lems – in­dif­fer­ence.

He him­self chal­lenged in­dif­fer­ence at the high­est lev­els. In spite of his re­la­tion­ships with all the pres­i­dents, he did not hes­i­tate to call them to task. In 1985, he pub­licly ad­mon­ished US Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan for vis­it­ing Ger­many’s Bit­burg ceme­tery, where 47 SS of­fi­cers are buried. And at the ded­i­ca­tion of the mu­seum in 1993, af­ter speak­ing about his beloved mother and how the world aban­doned her and all the Jews of Europe, he turned to the newly elected Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. In front of al­most 10,000 peo­ple, Elie chal­lenged him to do some­thing to stop the eth­nic cleans­ing in Bos­nia.

Elie never pre­sented him­self as hav­ing all the an­swers. He was a man of moral cer­tainty who was also plagued by doubts. Al­though never con­sumed by cyn­i­cism or anger, he was driven in his pur­suit of ques­tions – end­less ques­tions. He al­ways said that the mu­seum is not an an­swer. It is a ques­tion.

At the ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony, he said the mu­seum is “a les­son. There are many lessons. You will come. You will learn. We shall learn to­gether.” We did. And we do. He is now si­lenced, but his voice – a voice that both in­spires us and chal­lenges us – lives on. – The Wash­ing­ton Post

J Bloomfield is direc­tor of the United States Holo­caust Memo­rial Mu­seum.

Photo: AFP

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama (right) em­braces au­thor and Holo­caust sur­vivor Elie Wiesel at the site of the Buchen­wald Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp near the Ger­man city of Weimar on June 5, 2009.

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