Commentary

Elie Wiesel: A Last Breath of Witness

Photo by Abbott/Getty Images

A Voice for Humanity: Haunted by his memories of the Holocaust, survivor Eliezer Wiesel became an outspoken defender of oppressed people everywhere. Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and a BYU honorary doctorate in 1989. This essay is adapted from his 1985 BYU forum address. Wiesel passed away in July 2016.

Many years ago, a young boy from the Carpathian Mountains arrived from a place of darkness and fear and anguish to another place of darkness and fear and anguish. That boy came into that universe of malediction, seeing that so many thousands of Jews—men, women, and children—converged upon one place of destruction with flames mounting, devouring the sky.

I was that boy, and I should have stayed there. And yet, for reasons that remain unknown to me, I belong to the tragic minority who survived. And since then I wonder, what am I to do with the knowledge I inherited from those places?

The answer has always been that, first, I must bear witness. I did not leave them behind; they left me behind. And since I am here, I must be a truthful witness. Second, I must never allow knowledge, memory, and experience—though they are filled with cruelty and tears and agony—to be used against human beings. They must serve as links, as bridges between ethnic groups, between young and old, between Jew and not Jew.

I was born Jewish and therefore I feel myself always as a son of the Jewish people. If Jews somewhere are suffering, it is my duty to help them. When Soviet Jews are oppressed, I must help Soviet Jews. When Jews in Ethiopia are hungry, I must help them.

But that is never exclusive. If there are dissidents in Russia who are not Jewish, and they are persecuted, I must also speak up for them. If there are men and women who face hunger in Ethiopia, we must do something for these men and women. If not, we are guilty. It is the Jew in me who must open himself to everybody.

After the war I was convinced that out of so much suffering something good must happen. I felt that beyond the despair there must be hope. The hope was that never again would certain things be possible, that because of what happened to us, all other people would be saved from totalitarianism, from cruelty, from hunger, from humiliation. I would never have believed then that in my lifetime there would again be religious wars, economic wars, ethnic wars. Is it that we have not done our work? Is it that our testimony was not received? This is my despair.

If this message that we give now with our last breath—soon the last survivor will be gone—will not move the world toward humanity, what will? Therefore, I am here. In spite of my anguish, we must continue. Oh yes, we are moved by despair, but we are never moved to despair.

When I was young, I was convinced that if I were to fast enough days and lead a good life and say the proper prayers, I would bring the Messiah. Now I am no longer sure. What is my hope today?

One day a just man—young, vibrant, dynamic—decided that he must save the city of Sodom, the epitome of sin and deceit. So he began going from street to street, from marketplace to marketplace. “Men and women,” he said, “do not steal. Men and women, do not lie, do not sin.”

In the beginning people stopped to listen because he was amusing. After all, how many just men came to Sodom? But after a while he repeated himself so much that they stopped listening.

After many years, he was so old that he could hardly walk, yet he was walking every morning, going from street to street, from marketplace to marketplace, and saying, “People, you are destroying yourselves. Repent. Remember God.”

Nobody listened. Then one little child stopped the man and said, “Poor stranger, poor teacher, why do you do all that? Don’t you see that it’s useless?”

“Yes,” said the old man.

“Then why do you continue?”

And the old teacher said, “I will tell you why, my son. In the beginning when I came here, I was convinced that I would manage to change them. Now I know I will never change them. But if I continue and I shout louder and louder and I scream more and more, it is because I don’t want them to change me.”

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