On 2 July of this year, Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel died at his home in Manhattan. Between his birth in 1928 and his death in 2016, he lived eighty-seven intensive and inspiring years. Elie Wiesel was a writer, professor, human rights activist, and Nobel Laureate. He was also a Holocaust survivor, who at the age of fifteen lost his mother and sister in Auschwitz and his father in Buchenwald.
This summer, when Elie Wiesel died, I read quite a bit about his life and work. The more I read, the more humble I felt. I’m very reluctant to praise people for the hardships they’ve suffered. Only a small percentage of the ill-fated find adaptive ways to deal with their past, and even fewer manage to constructively employ their life story for the benefit of others. Elie Wiesel provides the embodiment of people in this latter category. For myself, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse in search of an appropriate way to share her story, Wiesel is an illustrious example. Therefore, at the end of 2016, I’m grateful for the lessons Elie Wiesel taught me.
1. It’s never to late to heal, or to share your story
For ten years after the war, Elie Wiesel didn’t talk or write about his experiences during the Holocaust. For me, the first time I ‘confessed’ I had been abused was more than eight years after it had happened. It took another five years before I was ready to tell my parents. ‘Going public’ about the abuse was one of the best things I ever did. Even after so many years, and although I was convinced that the events in my past had left permanent scars, I healed a little bit more each time I shared my story. On a lifetime, ten years isn’t really all that long. These days, when I struggle with memories of so many years ago, I tell myself that it’s not too late to make things better, and that one way to do that is by sharing.
2. Even the most atrocious events can lead to beautiful works of art
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. […] Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
In his first book, The Night, Wiesel provides a highly personal and scenic account of his teenage life in the Jewish ghettos, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I admire how he manages to write beautiful sentences and paragraphs, without being hindered by the immense anger he must feel towards the Nazis. Wiesel’s writing is accessible, meaningful, and gripping. For an author, a positive accord with your readership is crucial; especially if you want to get a message across. Anger and vengeance are not helpful. I later learned that the editors of The Night not only translated Wiesel’s work from Yiddish to French, but also pruned the long and angry manuscript without mercy. The result is a sophisticated testimony of what happened, rather than a refutation of what the Nazis did to the Jews. Personally, I hope to one day be able to write such a testimony. It may take a lot of long and resentful drafts, and even the help of an editor who sees through my anger, but that’s OK.
3. Strength and courage boost our ability to help others
In 1986, Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize. Throughout his life he actively campaigned against violence, repression and racism. While initially aiming to raise awareness about the Holocaust, he later started the Foundation for Humanity to support a broad range of humanitarian and political causes. He advocated for Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, the victims of apartheid in South Africa, the Kurds, the acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide, the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, children in the Israel-Gaza conflict, and many other causes. I greatly admire Elie Wiesel’s strength to face such injustice without being defeated by his own past. I appreciate how he related his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, to the experiences of others in different oppressive and abuse circumstances. By doing so, the number of people affected by his work increased exponentially. Me, I can only dream of ever reaching as many people as Elie Wiesel did. And if one day I would be faced with an opportunity to share my story with the world, I can only pray for the strength and courage to do so.
Professor Elie Wiesel, thank you for your work, your legacy and your dedication to help the oppressed.
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