Elie Wiesel shattered silence on Holocaust, Soviet Jews

Silence marked the decade that followed the Holocaust.  It’s not as if we didn’t know —  Jewish communities here and in Israel were suddenly populated with an influx of Eropean refugees.  But they didn’t talk about it much and neither did we. No one, it seemed, wanted to, like Lot’s wife, fix their gaze on what was left behind.

That was Elie Wiesel’s decade of silence.  As a young journalist for French and Israeli papers, he wrote plenty — but not about the Holocaust.  Intuiting the enormity of the task, he imposed a 10-year moratorium on himself to sort it out.  It ended with the English publication of “Night” in 1960, a book that shattered hearts along with our silence.

Silence, ironically, was a major theme for so prolific a silence breaker.  Five years after “Night” was published, Wiesel went to the Soviet Union to meet with Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. From that experience came “The Jews of Silence,” which told a story that, like the Holocaust, was known but rarely discussed then. 

“What torments me most,” he wrote, “is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”

Very early, Wiesel understood a central paradox that would hinder efforts to rescue Soviet Jews for years. Those of us active in the movement would hear again and again that the problem was not as severe as we described; we also heard, conversely, that nothing could be done in the face of Soviet power.  Prophetically, he wrote: “The condition of the Jews in the Soviet Union is at once more grievous and more hopeful than I had imagined.”

Grievous, because who better than he who survived Auschwitz could understand the oppressive devastation a totalitarian anti-Semitic regime could wreak.  And more hopeful, because who better than he could detect the Jewish and human spirit that regime had failed to destroy, and could, even then, imagine its potential.

He was not simply a chronicler of the Soviet war against the Jews.  He was an advocate and, often behind the scenes, helped Soviet Jewry activists immensely.  We activists knew that if we needed help, Wiesel would respond and quickly.  And he inspired the same Russian Jews who inspired him. “He inspired us to be Jews again,” more than one refusenik activist has said.

I was introduced to Wiesel the writer. I came to know him as an activist, and most appreciated him as a teacher.

Given his writings, his personal experience and his seminal role in urging remembrance of the Holocaust, it is unsurprising that so many of Wiesel’s obituaries focus on this horrific chapter in our people’s history. It does not do him justice to simply say, “He was so much more than that.”  The truth is that, like all of us, his experience informed his whole self: His Holocaust remembrance was not a thing alone, but fully integrated with how he addressed the world.

Holocaust remembrance, Wiesel taught us, had several key elements.  First and foremost, honoring the memory of its victims; forgetting is a perpetuation of violence to their memories:  “To forget the victims means to kill them a second time,” as he put it.

Then there was how our knowledge of the Holocaust must change our relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves.  That this was not simply another event in our long history — it was unique and a deep tear in the fabric of the Jewish people, our faith and our souls.

And finally, Wiesel illuminated the imperatives that memory demands from us: Remembering is not enough — we must act.

The first time I heard him speak, in Boston in the late 1970s, his main focus was not the Holocaust or Israel, or even, on that night, Soviet Jews.  It was the Cambodian genocide and the plight of Vietnamese boat people.

Sometimes it feels as if “never again” means two different things.  To some of us, never again means that never again must we, the Jewish people, be as vulnerable, as powerless as we were in mid-century Europe.  To others, never again means that never again should others suffer the way we did, whether they be Bosnians or Rwandans or Iraqi Yazidis.

Wiesel rejected any false dichotomy.  Applying the wisdom of Hillel, the Holocaust bears particular and universal lessons, both vital.  Israel and the Jewish people were always close to his heart and mind.  He never needed to be reminded of Israel’s importance — its absence during the Holocaust, when he and millions of Jews needed it most, was reminder enough.  This did not prevent him from schlepping to Honduras in the mid-1980s to investigate the plight of Miskito people fleeing persecution in Nicaragua, or participating in the first conference exploring sanctuary for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. 

“Never again jail and torture,” he wrote. “Never again the suffering of innocent people, or the shooting of starving, frightened, terrified children. And never again the glorification of base, ugly, dark violence. Never again,” he reminded us, “must be more than a slogan. It’s a prayer.”

David Waksberg is CEO of Jewish LearningWorks.  A long-time Soviet Jewry activist, he was formerly executive director of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jews, and vice president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. 


David Waksberg

David Waksberg is the CEO of S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks.