“We must always take sides,” said Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who passed away last week. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
We have learned the lesson of Wiesel, argues Bernard-Henri Lévy, “when we grasp that neither Cambodia, nor Darfur, nor the massacres in Syria, nor the need, anywhere on the planet, to drive out the beast that sleeps in man should divert us from the sacred task of saving what we can of memory, meaning, and hope.”
Perhaps better than anyone else of our age, Elie Wiesel grasped the terrible power of silence, argues Natan Sharansky (right), a human rights activist and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union. He understood that the failure to speak out, about both the horrors of the past and the evils of the present, is one of the most effective ways there is to perpetuate suffering and empower those who inflict it, he writes for The Washington Post:
Wiesel therefore made it his life’s mission to ensure that silence would not prevail. First, he took the courageous and painful step of recounting the Holocaust, bringing it to public attention in a way that no one else before him had done. His harrowing chronicle “Night,” originally titled “And the World Remained Silent,” forced readers to confront that most awful of human events — to remember it, to talk about it, to make it part of their daily lives. Then, as if that weren’t enough, he turned his attention to the present, giving voice to the millions of Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. Although he is rightly hailed for the first of these two achievements, it was the second, he told me on several occasions, for which he most hoped to be remembered.
“For the second time in a single generation, we are committing the error of silence,” Wiesel warned — a phenomenon even more troubling to him than the voiceless suffering of Soviet Jews themselves.
“Elie was a major source of inspiration for the refuseniks,” said Enid Wurtman, an American Soviet Jewry movement leader. “He taught them about the Shoah, strengthened their Jewish identity, made them assertive Jews fighting against all odds to be free, fighting for their right to emigrate to Israel.”
Wiesel’s own foundation was committed to resolving conflict through dialogue and democracy.
Apartheid is, in my view, as abhorrent as anti-Semitism, Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
To me, Andrei Sakharov’s isolation is as much of a disgrace as [refusenik] Josef Biegun’s imprisonment. As is the denial of Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa’s right to dissent. And Nelson Mandela’s interminable imprisonment.
There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism, and political persecution, writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right. Human rights are being violated on every continent.
“I believe that, every day, it is incumbent upon us to choose anew between deadly warfare among adults and the right of children to grow up without fear, with a smile on their face; between ugly hatred and the nobility of opposing it; between inflicting pain and humiliation and inventing a beginning of solidarity and hope,” said Wiesel.
A victim of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, Jeanine Munyeshuli Barbé (right) remembers meeting Wiesel after he confronted the Holocaust denial of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN’s Durban II racism conference, UN Watch reports.
In an interview with the International Campaign for Tibet (a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy), Wiesel called China’s conduct in the once-independent country “an insult to human decency.”
Small crimes, if unchecked, become bigger crimes. This was Elie Wiesel’s message—do not ignore the little things. The Holocaust did not start with Auschwitz, notes one friend.
A further inspiring message was his insight that “the life of any person does not consist of years, months and days; life consists of moments determining life or death, grief or happiness, humiliation or triumph of spirit.”
Wiesel was also a staunch supporter of Cuban democracy advocates and and recently presented a prestigious award to Armando Valladares, author of Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, who he described as “an honest fighter for peace and for justice.”
“I think he has something heroic about him,” said Wiesel.
Elie did more to bring the word “human” into human rights than any person in modern history, writes Alan M. Dershowitz:
For him, it did not matter whether the victims of genocide were Jews, Christians, Muslims, black, white, from the left, or from the right. Human rights were equally applicable to all. Elie was deeply involved in campaigns on behalf of the victims of genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and the Middle East.
My last substantive conversation with him was about the genocide currently taking place in Syria, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims are being slaughtered by both sides of an intractable conflict. He bemoaned the unwillingness of the international community to stop the slaughter. “Have we learned nothing?” he asked rhetorically. For Elie Wiesel, the worst sin was silence in the face of evil.
Alongside former dissident and Czech president Václav Havel and former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, Wiesel commissioned Failure to Protect: A Call for the U.N. Security Council To Act in North Korea. The influential report argued that the threat posed by North Korea’s newfound nuclear capacity should not distract from the need to address the regime’s egregious human rights violations. The law firm DLA Piper prepared the report in cooperation with the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. It may be viewed at www.hrnk.org.