This week-end is the 4th of July week-end in the U.S. There will be many speeches and lots of flag waving. It is a good time, but perhaps during the festivities we should have had a moment to remember all the voices in the world that are silent. Who had no one to speak for them in the middle of tragedy.
Today I learned that Elie Wiesel has died. His life-long commitment was to be the voice of six million Jews who died in the Holocaust including his father and mother and youngest sister. At age sixteen Wiesel was taken from his home in Eastern Europe and shoved into a cattle car with eighty other people. After many days they arrived at Auschwitz. In an instant his mother and sister were gone into the flames of the crematorium where the chimney, night and day, belched out black smoke. Later his father died from beatings received at the hands of an SS guard. The wonder of this experience which changed everything about who he was, was that Wiesel became a voice for those six million voices which were forever silenced.
As I began reading NIGHT, his first book and the story of his time in the prison camp, I am horrified at how childish we are to think we know and understand the blackness of true evil. When we pontificate in this election year about petty issues and act as though we know how to solve the world’s problems, I am ashamed of what the world has become. Without voices like Wiesel’s voice will we be able to find our way through all the work that lies ahead? Or will we pretend that homeless and hungry refugees do not exist; that political prisoners and those imprisoned journalists and artists who speak on behalf of personal freedom are of small matter. That we need to isolate ourselves from the “others” and their issues and maybe the world can return to ‘the way it used to be’. Another philosopher said that for evil to happen it only takes good men to do nothing.
In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for all his work on behalf of the Jewish people, but more importantly on behalf of the world. “The world did know and remained silent [about the holocaust]. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must 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 and 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 . . .Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight?. . .One person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.. . .We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.”
In the cacophony of senseless noise that surrounds us, this week we lost a voice of sanity. Elie Wiesel’s voice is silent.