Elie Wiesel’s near-universal public renown was due largely to his survival from Auschwitz. In a world where “survivor” came to signify either the Holocaust or a reality TV show, he was the world’s best-known practitioner of the trade.
Now he is dead at age 87.
Wiesel was liberated as a teenager and placed back into the world as an orphan. How does one renew a life after surviving a death camp? Haltingly and not without self-doubt, Wiesel managed to do so in unsurpassable ways. His survival was a miracle, his fame bizarrely improbable. While many of the Holocaust survivors who became writers were isolated and eventually committed suicide, Wiesel thrived as a writer and humanist, cultivating a public persona that included a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor, and serving as a surreal Jewish celebrity, given the inhuman context that brought him his fame.
Of course, by robbing him of his family and destroying his faith, the Nazis were not looking to turn Wiesel into a Jewish icon who chronicled evil — their own. His memoir, “Night,” achingly conveyed what he endured as a teenager who watched his father wither away while the son summoned resources no human being possessed naturally.
His career path, indeed, was a freak accident of Auschwitz. The Final Solution, after all, anticipated the finality of the Jewish people. Living eyewitnesses, no less a moral conscience embodied in a frail Romanian Jew, were not part of the plan.
And yet, one of the true ironies of this mass murder was that Wiesel’s post-Holocaust existence became a furious act of defiance against the Nazis. A young survivor emerged from the camps as Hitler’s worst posthumous nightmare — a Jew with a pen, a voice and a global pulpit. Wiesel walked among presidents, prime ministers and kings. Soft spoken, but with the instincts of a Broadway press agent, he knew how to leverage a story and deliver the perfect sound bite.
At a ceremony where he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Wiesel admonished President Reagan for choosing to visit a German cemetery where SS officers were buried. With a phrase that angered Reagan, making him wonder whether Wiesel deserved a much different award, an Oscar for dialogue, Wiesel said, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims.”
Memory became Wiesel’s stock in trade in a world suffering from amnesia, where civilization was no longer a safe bet and Israel was both a new nation and a sequel. He coined “Never Again,” but much more importantly, minted a life that inspired millions to never forget.
Wiesel spent his childhood in the Carpathian Mountains steeped in Jewish learning. Thoughts of writing novels or winning a Nobel Prize would have been more fantastical than a chasidic folk tale. He could never have imagined authoring 40 books. Serving as an unofficial adviser to world leaders and as a global ambassador for human rights does not usually come to those who hail from Transylvania — especially one who was a bookish introvert wearing side-locks. He was a featured guest on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Oh, and he had a side gig as a personal tour guide for Oprah at Auschwitz and President Obama and Chancellor Merkel at Buchenwald.
Horatio Alger was a mere amateur next to the rock star trajectory of Elie Wiesel.
He spoke out against the repression of Soviet Jewry, called attention to ethnic cleansings in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, openly acknowledged the Armenian genocide, and appeared at the United Nations to rally support for the victims in Darfur. More recently he issued prophetic warnings against the Iran nuclear deal.
Given the violence he witnessed and indignity he suffered, he possessed the moral authority to proclaim that life was made cheap and that humanity was in an endless state of hiatus. He had a blank check in calling out world despots and moral hypocrites. Such wide latitude was deserved. He earned it, after all. The numbers on his arm proved it.
Wiesel gave the Holocaust, and his role in its remembrance, a brand name all its own.
And, yet, with all those books and speeches, the students he inspired and leaders he lectured, the one thing he didn’t accomplish was the first thing he had set out to do. After a period in which the Holocaust became the atrocity du jour, it eventually descended into a malaise of Holocaust fatigue. There were fewer Yom HaShoah commemorations. Sept. 11 and Islamic terrorism became next year’s model of evil. European anti-Semitism returned, with chilling new slogans like, “Hamas, Hamas — Jews to the gas!” Holocaust deniers re-emerged, like locusts in the form of lunatics.
And, worse still, genocide itself did not disappear, but instead increased in ferocity, if not scale. Just ask the Cambodians, Rwandans, Bosnians, Tibetans, Congolese, Sudanese and now Syrians just how meaningful, or parochial, the chant “Never Again” represented to them.
Holocaust memory ended up more a placebo than inoculate. The world had learned nothing, its people would still suffer no matter how many viewings of “Schindler’s List” we all sat through. Anne Frank was now locked in another attic. “Night” is just a time of day.
With Wiesel now gone, few stand guard over the voiceless; even fewer possess the quiet power to answer the call. And is there anyone left to listen? n
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is a longtime friend and protégé of Elie Wiesel.
This essay originally appeared on The Jewish Week website (thejewishweek.com) on Sunday, July 3.