I remember the first time I read Night—in high school. I was moved by Elie Wiesel’s words, but I was also distracted by high school naivety and the superficiality of my very safe, very stable world. Night impacted my 17-year-old soul, but not nearly as much as it would in the later years of my life. I had yet to comprehend the true impact this great man was having on my world. I had yet to accept his challenge of standing against injustice with my voice and actions.
Eight years later, I became the teacher of Night to my own high school students. I remember re-reading it as an adult and preparing for my lessons. Would my students understand the magnitude of this work? Would they comprehend that he himself was a teenage boy when he entered Auschwitz? Would they be able to imagine the horror of it all and why it was so important that he wrote his story and told the world? Would they feel what I wanted them to feel, and understand how relevant Elie Wiesel’s words were in their own lives?
And now I think about Elie Wiesel’s life and his work, from the perspective of a mother. I think about the mothers of the Holocaust whose children were ripped from their arms. I think of Elie Wiesel’s own mother, sent immediately to the gas chamber with his sister, as her life was deemed worthless. I think of the children who prayed for their mothers’ comforting arms and never felt their embrace again. I think of the mothers and fathers and children sent to their deaths because they were Jewish. Or disabled. Or homosexual. Or unworthy of life for any myriad of reasons.
I am no longer a classroom teacher; I am instead a writer who discusses issues of social justice. I write about those who are oppressed. Who are victimized. And I often wonder if it’s enough. Is anyone even reading this? I ask myself. What if I am attacked in the comments? I worry. Do I have a tough enough skin to tackle such controversial issues? Am I brave enough to sit at my computer and put my thoughts out there, regardless of the consequences?
When I learned today that Elie Wiesel had died, I read this quote:
“…And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must–at that moment–become the center of the universe.” (Elie Wiesel, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize)
And then I had my answer. The truth is, I am not brave enough to handle vicious verbal attacks from those who read my words—from those who express bigotry or racism or hatred. But it’s not about being brave. It’s about knowing that silence is just as dangerous. And it is about fighting for humanity, for a better world for my children and for your children.
“And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” (Elie Wiesel, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize)
Elie Wiesel and his fellow Holocaust survivors have forced the world to face this genocide—a truth many wanted to ignore or forget. But he did not allow that, as his life’s mission was to ensure that those who suffered were never forgotten. And soon the last of the Holocaust survivors—the true witnesses to the genocide of the 20th century that all future genocides would be measured against—will be deceased. What happens when there are none left? Wiesel himself worried about who would be the Holocaust’s last witness, who would have that burden. But he provided this as comfort:
“But to listen to a witness is to become a witness and that consoles us.” (Elie Wiesel, npr.org)
So here is our charge. This is where Elie Wiesel’s legacy lives on. It is up to me, as a mother, a teacher, a writer, to witness in the only way I know how—by telling his story and by standing for those who are victimized today, in my lifetime. For those who are hunted as the Jews were hunted. For those who are targeted and whose dignity and safety is stripped away from them by hate and fear. I will not be silent.
I will witness for you, Elie Wiesel. May you rest in the peace you so greatly deserve.