Chris Honoré: Elie Wiesel 1928-2016
During this political season, there is a thread that runs through our presidential election and it involves those very personal qualities of character and values. Unlike so many elections in the past, and considering the candidates, this feels like a crossroads moment for our nation. Hopefully we will choose wisely, for there is a great deal at stake: the essential scaffolding that surrounds our democratic institutions.
It is in that context, and with deep regret, that I heard that Elie Wiesel had passed away on July 2. From all I knew about the man, and from his signature work, “Night,” I judged his voice to be one of integrity and authenticity. He had devoted his life to peace and understanding while bearing witness to one of the bleakest moments in our history: the Holocaust.
We are reminded, almost daily, that evil exists in the world on a scale that seems both indescribable and inexplicable. The world’s history is achingly replete with the bodies of innocents.
There are no ultimate explanations. What we can say with assurance is that evil is embedded in the human condition and therefore is and has been ever with us. All we can do is resist any attempt to allow it to define us.
When the church is asked, often in a moment of anguish, how a benevolent God can allow its existence, the response is, “Mysterium iniquitatis” — the mystery of evil. Yet we know that it is far more than a mystery, but one that can shroud our lives and cleave our hearts. Will we ever completely forget Sandy Hook?
All we can do is bear witness and speak out against those among us who are so deeply gnarled and twisted and pathological in their labyrinthine justifications that they have become unrecognizable to the rest of us. Emmanuel Kant once wrote, “From the crooked timber of humanity not a straight thing was ever made.”
During World War II, Elie Wiesel, as a boy living in Europe, was sent, along with his family, to Auschwitz concentration camp. The searing barbarity of what he saw and endured stamped his life (his arm tattooed — A7713) for all time and framed a struggle to remind the world what mankind is capable of, while saying, lamenting, “Never again.”
He remembers seeing his mother and sister walk away from him, put in a line of mothers and children and old people moving toward a concrete building, while smoke stacks stood in relief against a hazy sky, not realizing that he would never see them again.
Liberated by allied soldiers from Buchenwald, he descended into a period of silence. But at some point he realized that to not speak out, to not bear witness, was a form of collaboration with the forces of evil that took his family and millions of others. He made it his life’s mission to remind the world that while we can say, “Never again,” it is in remembering that we can find the strength to reiterate that the forces of good can and must prevail. But ultimately, in the grips of a crisis of faith, Wiesel concluded that it is up to us. Not God.
Aharon Appelfeld, author, once wrote: “A doctor who survived the Holocaust was on his way to Israel, in June of 1946. He said, ‘We didn’t see God when we expected him so we have no choice but to do what he was supposed to do: We will protect the weak, we will love, we will comfort. From now on, the responsibility is ours.”
In this election, in our nation, the responsibility is ours. We must embrace the least of us. It’s time. We must also embrace those who desperately seek the umbrella called America. They are, like us, part of the family of man and yearn only to join a nation of immigrants. We must resist the seductive currents of racial bigotry and reject all that is anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic, and, like Elie Wiesel, strive to find what is best in ourselves.
The voice of demagoguery should be familiar, for we have heard it before, shrill and remorseless and willing to demonize others as a way of promoting themselves. Hopefully we will choose wisely and remember.
Chris Honoré of Ashland is a Daily Tidings columnist.