The world lost its conscience over the Fourth of July weekend. Elie Wiesel, the holocaust survivor who spent the sixty-seven years after the fall of the Third Reich striving to make sure that history wouldn’t repeat itself, died in his Manhattan home at the age of 87.
I was privileged to meet Wiesel once. We spoke about Bonhoeffer, with whom he was, of course, very familiar.
Wiesel was born in 1928 in the Romanian town of Sighet. For most of World War II, the town was administered by Hungary. When Wiesel was 15, the Third Reich occupied Hungary and began the extermination of the last substantial Jewish population under its direct control. In just eight weeks, 424,000 out of an estimated 800,000 Jews living in Hungary were deported to Auschwitz, ninety percent of whom were exterminated upon arrival.
Elie Wiesel, along with his parents and his youngest sister, were among the deportees. While his mother and sister were killed immediately upon arrival, Wiesel and his father were put to work. Just before Auschwitz fell to the Soviets later that year, he and his father were sent to Buchenwald, another notorious concentration camp.
Wiesel’s father died only a few weeks before Buchenwald was liberated by Patton’s Third Army in April, 1945. He and his two sisters, who had emigrated to North America prior to the war, were all that was left of his family. By the standards of what is called the “Shoah” in Hebrew, they were more fortunate than most.
Of course, in the face of monstrous evil, “fortunate” is a relative term. Very relative.
For ten years after his release from Buchenwald, Wiesel rarely spoke, much less wrote, about his experience. He found the voice that would move the world, with the help of the French writer, Francois Mauriac, a devout Catholic who resisted the Nazi occupation of France.
At their first meeting, Wiesel, seeking a favor from the legendary intellectual, was enraged by Mauriac’s constant reference to Jesus and stormed out. As he was waiting by the elevator, he felt Mauriac’s hand on his shoulder. When they returned to the apartment, Mauriac broke down in tears over what had happened to Wiesel and his fellow Jews.
This was the start of a great friendship whose most famous product was Wiesel’s book, “Night,” in which Wiesel told his story. As Wiesel wrote at the time of Mauriac’s death, “I, a Jew, owe to the fervent Catholic Mauriac, who declared himself in love with Christ, the fact of having become a writer.”
But Wiesel was far more than just a writer. He believed that he’d been spared for a purpose: to tell the world what happened and to do everything possible—he called it his “madness”—to ensure it didn’t happen again. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
This “madness” led him to, as President Obama put it, raise “his voice, not just against anti-Semitism, but against hatred, bigotry and intolerance in all its forms.”
This commitment is perhaps best illustrated in a story about the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial, which would never have happened without Wiesel. Early on, he was offered a substantial contribution that came with a catch: the memorial must only honor Jewish victims. He declined.
With his passing, you might say that the world has lost its conscience, someone who had seen the worst of human nature and still retained the hope that we could be better.
May Elie Wiesel, the man whom Francois Mauriac compared to “Lazarus come back from the dead,” rest in peace.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: July 6, 2016