A light in the Jewish community went out on July 2 with the passing of Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Elie Wiesel, and the community both in Philadelphia and worldwide mourned his passing.
“Action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all.”
A light in the Jewish community went out on July 2 with the passing of Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist Elie Wiesel. He was 87.
Wiesel, whose harrowing account of time he spent in concentration camps as a teenager is described in his memoir Night, became a journalist, historian, activist and an outspoken voice against racism.
The Jewish community both in Philadelphia and worldwide mourned his passing.
President Barack Obama recounted his visit to Buchen-wald with Wiesel, whom he called “a living memorial,” and expressed his sadness at the loss of “one of those people who changed the world more as a citizen of the world than those who hold office or traditional positions of power.”
“His life, and the power of his example, urges us to be better,” Obama said in a statement. “In the face of evil, we must summon our capacity for good. In the face of hate, we must love. In the face of cruelty, we must live with empathy and compassion. We must never be bystanders to injustice or indifferent to suffering. Just imagine the peace and justice that would be possible in our world if we all lived a little more like Elie Wiesel.”
“The State of Israel and the Jewish People bitterly mourn the passing of Elie Wiesel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Saturday. “Elie, the wordsmith, expressed through his extraordinary personality and fascinating books the triumph of the human spirit over cruelty and evil. Throughout the dark period of the Holocaust, in which our 6 million brethren perished, Elie Wiesel was a beacon of light and an example of humanity that believes in man’s inherent good.”
Organizations across the city expressed their thoughts about Wiesel and his legacy in the community.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia said in a statement, “He leaves behind a legacy that can never be equaled. Surviving the most horrible and tragic event in world history, he used his experiences to become an activist for the Jewish people … Our community, our nation and the entire world has lost a superb champion of justice who took the ultimate tragedy and created life lessons for all of us.”
“I am and have been incredibly inspired by Elie Wiesel,” said Bud Newman, president of the Jewish Federation. “Surviving the Holocaust and becoming one of the true heroes in life will allow Elie Wiesel to live on in history forever.”
Said Naomi Adler, CEO of the Jewish Federation, “I cannot think of a more prominent Jewish person who has done so much for so many after overcoming such unspeakable acts.”
“Elie Wiesel was a voice not only for the Holocaust victims and survivors but for the Jews who decided to live in Judea and Samaria,” said Steve Feldman, executive director of Greater Philadelphia ZOA. “He was a proponent of Jews’ rights to live in those areas.”
Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors Association President Mim Krik wrote her thoughts about Wiesel, a “humble man who persevered the agonies of the Holocaust,” in an email.
“With strength, conviction of moral dignity and persistence, he dedicated his life to educating the world of the positive inherent qualities of humanity. The world will mourn his passing,” Krik wrote. “On behalf of The Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, we pledge to preserve our legacy through education and awareness.”
Local faith leaders reacted powerfully to Wiesel’s death as well.
“He was a giant,” said Rabbi Albert Gabbai, of Mikveh Israel. “He helped us tremendously in dealing with the question of the Holocaust. Many people have asked, ‘Where was God?’ and he answered in the truly Jewish tradition in saying, ‘That’s not the question to ask. The question to ask is, ‘Where was man? Where was man worthy of that title?’ Because the Nazis, even though by nature were human beings, they did not behave as human beings. And the rest of the world that was silent at that time also. As it says in Pirkei Avot, in the sayings of our forefathers, ‘In a place where there are no men, you should be a man.’ In other words, when you see injustice you have to raise your voice. Elie Wiesel’s legacy is so important for us.”
Rabbi Shawn Zevit, of Reconstructionist synagogue Mishkan Shalom, said, “I was in my early 20s in Toronto when I came upon his book Night and saw he was coming to a local synagogue to speak. I sat in a sea of people I did not know, and for the first time in my life found my thinking and sense of Jewish peoplehood changed by an encounter with someone who spoke from a podium. His dignity and humanity radiated in his words and appearance.”
Zevit said Wiesel — “neither victim nor avenger” — set out a challenge for all of us: “to commit to being part of building a world in which we celebrated and rejoiced in our Jewish heritage and did not retreat into it in the face of human suffering of all people.”
Rabbi Beth Kalisch, who leads Beth David Reform Congregation, was reminded of a particular memory when she heard Wiesel had passed.
In her days as an undergraduate student at Yale University, she had the opportunity to meet and speak with Wiesel after a lecture.
“What strikes me — I was thinking about this when he passed — is that my conversation with him was actually about a young woman we’d both known who died very young, not about any grand themes of Jewish history,” she recalled. “And I thought in many ways that’s an indication of part of what his legacy is, is that the grand themes of Jewish history and human history are all about individual lives and individual stories.”
The importance of sharing his story is another key part of his legacy, particularly now at a time when — as an expectant mother Kalisch knows all too well — the next generation will have fewer first-person accounts to hear and learn from.
“Elie Wiesel has always been such a piece of vibrant Jewish life and of modern-day Jewish dialogue in my lifetime that it was startling to think about the next generation being born into a world where Elie Wiesel is only a figure of Jewish history,” she noted, adding that now the responsibility at hand will be to “make sure the lessons he taught are passed down to the next generation as well.”
“He really was a giant in Jewish life in the past century, certainly for my generation and generations older than me, too,” she said. “He was just a transformative figure in the way that American Jews and American non-Jews understood the Holocaust and the responsibility that it lays on all of us.”
Wiesel is survived by his wife, son, stepdaughter, grandchildren and a legacy of speaking out against inequality and indifference.
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