Elie Wiesel was born Sept. 30, 1928, in the town of Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains near the Ukrainian border. His childhood was idyllic until 1944 when the Nazis marched into Hungary. Soon thereafter, the Jews of Sighet were rounded up for deportation.
Wiesel wrote in his iconic memoir, “Night,” that he and his family were transported for days in a closed, airless cattle car before arriving at a place unknown to them — it was called Auschwitz.
Wiesel recalls smoke stacks that filled the air with the miasma of burning flesh, saw babies burning in a pit and remembers a doctor, Josef Mengele, with a wave of a baton, decided who would live and who would die. And from his place in another line, he watched his mother, Sarah, and his small sister, Tzipora, walk away, never to be seen again.
In prose that is haunting, he describes his improbable journey of survival, of watching his father die later in Buchenwald, of slowly starving. And finally, in the spring of 1945, he was liberated by the U.S. Third Army.
In 1956, after years shrouded by silence and nightmares, Wiesel wrote the first draft of his memoir, initially some 800 pages long. Later it was pared down and translated into French and titled “La Nuit.”
Wiesel was forever marked by his experience. Not just with an indelible tattoo, A-7713, but by memories of unimaginable horror, mass murder and incomprehensible cruelty. He decided he could no longer remain quiet but must bear witness. His past now defined him and gradually elicited a moral voice that resonated while his words wept.
In 1986, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and was described as “a messenger to mankind — his message 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.”
He wrote, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which turned my life into one long night ... Never shall I forget the little faces of children whose bodies I saw turned into wreathes of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget those things ... Never.”
And out of the Holocaust have come questions that still persist, questions that torment our collective consciences and beg for ultimate explanations. How can we live our lives and comprehend a universe (or God) that permits such profound cruelty? How did the world remain mute in the face of such evil? Wiesel asked these questions unrelentingly, of himself and of others.
When Elie Wiesel died in the summer of 2016, then President Obama, who had visited Buchenwald with Wiesel, released the following statement: “He raised his voice not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all forms. He implored each of us as nations and as human beings to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge, ‘Never again.’”
The words “Never again,” echo and ricochet across time and stand not just as an affirmation, but as a plea to resist the safety and refuge of silence.
When we are confronted with reprehensible rhetoric or with shameful and deplorable policies such as “Zero Tolerance,” and we see images of small children taken from the arms of their mothers and locked in steel cages, we must speak out. And when we hear the voices of those in the White House, in Congress, cynically lying about a ribbon of desperate, rootless people, driven by fear, walking toward our southern border, how can we not be reminded of those who came before us, made passage across vast oceans, equally desperate, equally hopeful?
And if we don’t step forward, speak out, resist the mendacity, then who are we?
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.