The many legacies of Elie Wiesel: a moment symposium.

Author:Breger, Sarah
Position:Cover story


WITH Yosef Abramowitz Sara Bloomfield Joseph Ciechanover Patrick Desbois Nadine Epstein Martha Hauptman Ted Koppel Bernard-Henri Levy Chaim Peri Mark Podwal Dina Porat Menachem Z. Rosensaft Kali Rubaii Dan Shapiro Natan Sharansky Leon Wieseltier and Elisha Wiesel

With the death of Elie Wiesel, the world has lost one of the most powerful voices of the past century. Wiesel first came to public attention in 1960 with the publication of the English translation of Night, a searing autobiographical account of the horrors he witnessed and endured in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a teenager. For decades after, he persistently spoke out for the need to remember the Holocaust and against atrocities and genocides around the world. The Nobel committee recognized this work in 1986 by awarding Wiesel its prize for peace. The Nobel citation described him in prophetic terms: "Wiesel is a messenger to mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief."

Wiesel's work with Moment, which he cofounded with Leonard Fein in 1975, played a special role in bringing that message to the Jewish people. He and Fein conceived of Moment as a source of enlightenment for the American Jewish community. Until the end of his life, Wiesel played a central role in the Moment family, serving on its board and always making himself available for advice. In the wake of his passing, Moment reached out to a group of distinguished humanitarians, scholars and personal friends, asking them to reflect on Wiesel's legacy and share their memories of him. A stirring image emerged of Wiesel as a man of strong words and actions who never hesitated to stand up for what he believed in, and who always found time to share a joke or words of comfort with his friends.


There are, in each generation, only a few men and women who are able to perform the alchemy of converting pain, injustice and horror into love, tolerance and compassion. Elie was one such man.

Elie's legacy is the lesson that all acts of inhumanity are similar. He was a passionate Jew, and the story he told in Night is uniquely his--that of the consequences of anti-Semitism run amok. And yet the lesson that Elie would have us all draw front the Holocaust in general, and Night in particular, is that intolerance and unbridled hatred of any people because of their race or religion or ethnicity is the ultimate evil.

Elie and I first met when he appeared as a guest on Nightline. My recollection is that he came on the program to draw public attention to the plight of Bosnians being slaughtered in the former Yugoslavia.

We soon became friends. He and his wife, Marion, visited our home. My wife, Grace Anne, and I visited his. We would call one another every few weeks. I would tell him jokes. I think I was one of only a few people who made him laugh. Then we would talk politics and sometimes religion.

In late December of 1999, Elie and Marion visited my wife and me at our home in Captiva, Florida. They spent a couple of nights with us, including the New Year's Eve that took us into this new millennium. We talked through the end of 1999 and well into 2000. On the first day of the New Year, I convinced Elie that he needed to take up bicycling again. He hadn't been on a bike since his childhood, he claimed. I threw a couple of bikes in the back of our rental car and took Elie to a secluded spot. He made it just about 20 yards before he crashed the bike. He was wearing shorts and one of his knees was bloodied. Our reaction? Laughter. We could both imagine the headlines: "Koppel injures Nobel Laureate." To the best of my knowledge, Elie never rode a bike again.

Ted Koppel was the anchor for ABC's Nightline from 1980 to 2005. He is currently a contributor to CBS News Sunday Morning. In 2004 he received the Paul White Award for lifetime contributions to electronic journalism.


I do not know if Elie Wiesel was a "great" writer. But I am convinced that he believed that a Jew of his ilk does not come into the world to pursue literature as a profession. His work has neither the inaccessible sublimity of Kafka nor the paradoxically lofty power of Proust--nor, perhaps, the laconic grace of Paul Celan. But he is one of the few to have spoken the unspeakable about the camps. He shares with Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz (and how many others?) the terrible privilege of having felt six million shadows pressing against his frail silhouette in an effort to gain their almost imperceptible place in the great book of the dead. Countless lives were reduced to ash and smoke, sloughed into dust or filmy memory--they are fives of which there would have remained, without Wiesel, no name or trace.

His other great virtue, perhaps, is having ensured, through his work and henceforth in the minds of those inspired by that work, that the dark memory of that exception that was the Holocaust will not exclude--indeed, that the Holocaust requires--ardent solidarity with all of the victims of all other genocides.

The greatness of Elie Wiesel, in truth, was to have remained, to the end and under all circumstances, one of those humble Jews that he himself considered to be the crown of humanity.

Bernard-Henri Levy is a French public intellectual and author of more than 30 books, including Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism.


Elie Wiesel's most important legacy was bringing real awareness of the Holocaust to the public consciousness. The great turning point for his work came during a speech he made in a White House ceremony in 1985, when he received the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement from President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was about to visit a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where Nazi SS guards were buried. There was a great uproar about Reagan's proposed visit, and people wondered what Elie Wiesel would say about it. When press attention started to build before the ceremony, the White House made efforts to contain the situation. There were attempts to limit the scope and content of Elie's speech, and they moved the ceremony to a much smaller room. Even though I had designed the medal Elie was receiving, I, along with many others, was no longer able to attend the event.

Elie was not quelled, and in his speech that day he called on Ronald Reagan to cancel the visit, famously saying, "That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS." NBC carried the speech five, and the next day it was quoted in headlines in all the major newspapers. Before that speech, many people had not read Night, and they really didn't know who Elie Wiesel was. Elie said that day, and many times afterwards, that our Jewish tradition says that we must speak truth to power. I think that's one of his main legacies--giving voice to the truth no matter what.

People have often remarked to me that Elie Wiesel always looked so pained and asked if he enjoyed life and if he ever laughed. Elie had a wonderful sense of humor and appreciated a good joke, but I can't publicly repeat the best jokes he made! He always made time for his friends. Elie held my son at his circumcision and gave the sermon at his bar mitzvah. And he was very thoughtful and sensitive. When my mother died, Elie consoled me, saying, "Death is the price of life." At Elie's funeral, his son, Elisha, eulogized him by saying that Elie finally has the opportunity to ask God all the difficult questions. Knowing him, I am sure Elie will question God's answers.

Mark Podwal is an artist and a dermatologist at the New York University School of Medicine. His drawings have appeared on The New York Times Op-Ed page and have been displayed in museums around the world.


We don't yet know if Elie Wiesel will have a lasting legacy. During his life and at the time of his death, Elie Wiesel was the face of the Holocaust victim to the rest of the world. But today, there are already many teenagers who have no idea what happened to the Jews of Europe during the 20th century. Among the younger generations, many people simply have no idea what genocide really is. They do not know how different genocides, not just the Holocaust, have impacted and injured the world. Quite often, they are completely unaware these killings have occurred.

The Holocaust was not solely a Jewish story. Non-Jews were involved in all aspects of it. They were perpetrators of violence and victims of it. They rescued Jews and they persecuted Jews. World War II and the Holocaust impacted the entire world. We have to teach about Hitler, the Holocaust and survivors like Elie Wiesel because mass killings and genocides are still happening. Genocides didn't end with the Holocaust.


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