Last week (02 July) the world lost a great humanitarian, Elie Wiesel. Mr. Wiesel was perhaps the most well-known survivor of the Holocaust, author of 57 books, a political activist, professor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, as well as other awards far too numerous to list here.
Today, amidst the news of Mr. Alton Sterling, Mr. Philando Castile, and 12 Dallas police officers, I came across a tribute to Elie Wiesel that included the speech he gave upon acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. On reading this speech, I was struck by how so much of what he said then applies today. The lessons of which he speaks are ones that we have yet to learn, some 30 years after his speech and 70+ years after the Holocaust.
“I remember: it happened yesterday or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the kingdom of night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
I remember: he asked his father: “Can this be true?” This is the 20th century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?
And now the boy is turning to me: “Tell me,” he asks. “What have you done with my future? What have you done with your life?” And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.
And then I explain to him how naïve 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. You must always 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 or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe. 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 am particularly struck by this last paragraph and the words: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. You must always 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 or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
For those who sometimes ask me why I write about the topics I do, for those who would say, “Filosofa, lighten up, write about only happy things … relax”, this is the reason. I am no Elie Wiesel, for certain, but then, most of us are not. Still, if every person of good conscience speaks out against injustice, the collective sum of our voices is greater than the whole. If we do not, if we sigh, shake our heads, and think that it “isn’t happening to us”, then we are guilty of being accomplices.
Today, each and every one of us has a voice that we did not have some 20-30 years ago. We have the internet, we have social media sites, we have blogs, we have online journals. Most of us will not go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize or to write 57 books, most of us will not contribute to catching criminals and oppressors. But what we can do is heighten awareness of the social and humanitarian injustices in the world. We can cry out against police killing people because of their race. We can refuse to accept discrimination of an entire religion because of the actions of a few. We can write letters to Congressmen letting them know of our angst. We can, at least in many democratic societies, vote for men and women who are fair, who will fight against injustices of all sorts.
I always had great admiration for Elie Wiesel and am saddened by his death. His life was fascinating, and I cannot even begin to cover it in this post, but there is no better tribute to the man than his own autobiographical book, Night. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.
There can be no better way to pay tribute to the man than to live by his words, to speak out, to not hide among the silent majority. The United States has long been known as the country where people are willing to open their doors and open their arms to minorities and the disadvantaged. Let us do our part to maintain that reputation, rather than to someday be seen in the history books as the nation that closed its eyes and looked the other way. I hope that, at the end of my own life, when asked what I did with my life, I will be able to reply as Elie Wiesel did: “I have tried”.
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind
– Blowing in the Wind, Bob Dylan, 1962