This was first published in Israel National News, and posted here with the author’s consent.
In memoriam Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel’s life means different things to different people. US President Barack Obama said, “Elie Wiesel was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world. He raised his voice, not just against anti-Semitism but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms.” 1 Former Israeli President Shimon Peres said in his memory, “Wiesel left his mark on humanity through preserving and upholding the legacy of the Holocaust and delivering a message of peace and respect between people worldwide. He endured the most serious atrocities of mankind – survived them and dedicated his life to conveying the message of `Never Again.” 2
My few meetings with Wiesel were very short. Before we ever met he had been kind enough to write a very positive back cover comment for my book, The Abuse of Holocaust Memory; Distortions and Responses.”3 Another bond, however slight, between Wiesel and myself, was a common close friend, Ted Comet. In his nineties he is still active in Jewish life in the United States. It was Comet, a postwar American volunteer helping survivors of the Holocaust who found Wiesel in an orphanage in Paris. This exceptional person was a major inspiration for Wiesel’s lifelong devotion to the Jewish people.4
Some persons become symbols during their lives through how they live and what they do. The Talmud says it is not the place a man occupies that gives him honor, but the man gives honor to the place he occupies.5 That was the case when Wiesel was nominated for president of Israel in 2007.6 Would he have been a good president? I doubt it. A representative function like this requires many formal duties, including shaking the hands of thousands, sitting at long dinners, and listening to all too often uninspiring speeches. These requirements stymie creativity. Wiesel, like Albert Einstein – another Jew who became a symbol during his lifetime who refused Israel’s first presidency when Ben Gurion offered it to him – wisely turned the proposal down,
One of the many things a person who has become a symbol of morality can do is to influence policy and opinion with his statements. In Romania, the country where Wiesel was born, there had been many post-war efforts to distance the country from its responsibility for the Holocaust. An important step to expose this deflection process occurred when the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania, chaired by Wiesel, released a report in November 2004 that unequivocally points to Romanian culpability. It declares: “Of all the Allies of Nazi Germany, Romania bears responsibility for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself.”7
The increasing abuse of the term Holocaust pained Wiesel. In 1988, earlier than many others recognized this issue, he stated with emotion, “I cannot use [the word Holocaust] anymore. First, because there are no words, and also because it has become so trivialized that I cannot use it anymore. Whatever mishap occurs now, they call it ‘holocaust.’ I have seen it myself in television in the country in which I live. A commentator describing the defeat of a sports team called it a ’holocaust.’ 8 Since then the abuse of the Holocaust has multiplied many times.
As the distortion of the Holocaust and the falsification of its memory are subjects of particular interest to me, I want to mention Wiesel’s role in fighting the Bitburg scandal. In 1985, U.S. president Ronald Reagan visited the German military cemetery of Bitburg. When his visit to Germany was announced, it was also specifically mentioned that he would not visit a concentration camp. Initially the impression was that only soldiers and officers of the German Army (Wehrmacht) were buried in the Bitburg cemetery. This visit, planned by the German government, was a clear act of whitewashing part of its past. The Wehrmacht, however, gave support to the SS, which carried out most of the mass murder of the Jews. Only years later would it become more widely known that the Wehrmacht itself had played such a major part in the murders.
Shortly after the visit was announced, it transpired that members of the Waffen SS were also buried in this cemetery. This led to huge protests against the visit. Reagan had agreed to go to Bitburg in order to show that the United States now had normal relations with Germany and its pro-American chancellor Helmut Kohl, but because of the protests he later decided to visit the Bergen Belsen concentration camp as well.
In his memoirs Wiesel devoted an entire chapter to the Bitburg affair. He summarized the essence of the whitewashing: The German tactic in this affair was obvious; to whitewash the SS. He wrote, “It is the final step in a carefully conceived plan. To begin with, Germany rehabilitated the “gentle,” “innocent” Wehrmacht. And now, thanks to Kohl, it was the turn of the SS. First of all, the “good” ones. And then would come the turn of the others. And once the door was open, the torturers and the murderers would be allowed in as well. Bitburg is meant to open that door…. Officials in the State Department tell me that Kohl bears full responsibility for this debacle; he convinced Reagan that if the visit were canceled it would be his, Kohl’s defeat, and hence that of the alliance between the United States and Germany.” 9
In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize from the Norwegian Nobel Committee. This was an example of Wiesel honoring the prize rather than the prize honoring the man. When several years later Yasser Arafat would be one of the recipients of the same prize, he dishonored it. For years thereafter he continued to send murderers to kill Israeli citizens. A list of payments to Palestinian terrorists and assassins signed by Arafat was found in the Orient House in Jerusalem. It included Arafat’s hand-written changes as to the amounts to be paid to each murderer.10
There are Westerners, often calling themselves progressives, who show understanding for Palestinian terror because they view the Palestinians as victims. Wiesel was a symbol of victimhood. He had suffered far more than most Palestinians. Wiesel didn’t use it as an excuse to become a killer or support murderers, but to the contrary – to show humanity that however abused, a human can rise to great moral heights.
3 Manfred Gerstenfeld, The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2009)
5 Bavli Taanit 21b
8 Elie Wiesel, “Some Questions That Remain Open,” In Asher Cohen, Joav Gelber, and Charlotte Wardi, eds., Comprehending the Holocaust (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1988), 13.
9 Elie Wiesel, And the Sea is Never Full: Memoirs, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).