Perhaps better than anyone else of our age, Elie Wiesel grasped the terrible power of silence. He understood that the failure to speak out, about both the horrors of the past and the evils of the present, is one of the most effective ways there is to perpetuate suffering and empower those who inflict it.
Wiesel therefore made it his life’s mission to ensure that silence would not prevail. First, he took the courageous and painful step of recounting the Holocaust, bringing it to public attention in a way that no one else before him had done. His harrowing chronicle “Night,” originally titled “And the World Remained Silent,” forced readers to confront that most awful of human events – to remember it, to talk about it, to make it part of their daily lives.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, he turned his attention to the present, giving voice to the millions of Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. Although he is rightly hailed for the first of these two achievements, it was the second, he told me on several occasions, for which he most hoped to be remembered.
Wiesel first traveled to the Soviet Union in 1965 as a journalist from Haaretz, on a mission to meet with Jews there, and was shocked by what he saw. Those with whom he spoke were too afraid to recount Soviet persecution, terrified of reprisals from the regime, but their eyes implored him to tell the world about their plight. The book that resulted, “The Jews of Silence,” was an impassioned plea to Jews around the world to shed their indifference and speak out for those who could not. “For the second time in a single generation, we are committing the error of silence,” Wiesel warned – a phenomenon even more troubling to him than the voiceless suffering of Soviet Jews themselves.
This was a watershed moment in Soviet Jewry’s struggle. While the major American Jewish organizations felt a responsibility to stick to quiet diplomacy, wary of ruffling Soviet feathers and alienating non-Jews in the United States, Wiesel’s book became the banner of activists, students and others who would not stay quiet. He had realized that the Soviet regime wanted above all for its subjects to feel cut off from one another and abandoned by the world. Indeed, I can attest that even 15 years later, Soviet authorities were still doing their utmost to convince us - both those of us in prison and those outside - that we were alone, that no one would save us and that the only way to survive was to accept their dictates.
Wiesel was thus uniquely perceptive in realizing that without this power to generate fear and isolation, the entire Soviet system could fall apart, and he was prophetic in calling on the rest of the world to remind Soviet Jews that they were not alone. The history of the Soviet Union would likely be very different had the struggle for Soviet Jewry not come to encompass the kind of outspoken, grass-roots activism that Wiesel encouraged in his book. Without public campaigns and the awareness they generated, there could be no quiet diplomacy to secure results. Every achievement in the struggle for Soviet Jewry over the succeeding 25 years - from making the first holes in the Iron Curtain, to securing the release of political prisoners and human rights activists, to ultimately making it possible for millions of Soviet Jews to emigrate - resulted from this mixture of activism and diplomacy, neither of which could succeed without the other.
Over the years, of course, Wiesel became an important part of establishment Jewish life. Every Jewish organization sought to co-opt him, to invite him to speak or to support their causes. Yet he remained deeply connected to the dozens of refusenik families whom he had effectively adopted as his own. From 1965 on, he once said, not a single day went by when he was not preoccupied with the fate of Soviet Jews, many of whom he regarded as family.
And he was true to this approach to the very end, to the last battle in our struggle: Before the March for Soviet Jewry in Washington in December 1987, Elie and I had discussed the idea of a march more than a year earlier, in mid-1986. Yet six months after our initial conversation, I found myself lamenting to him that the Jewish establishment was too resistant to the idea, afraid of the logistical difficulties involved and of being painted as enemies of a newly born detente. Elie replied that we should not expect establishment organizations to take the lead and should instead mobilize students, who would pressure them from below to get on board. So I traveled to about 50 U.S. universities in the months leading up to the march, galvanizing activists who were eager to participate. And sure enough, just as he predicted, all of the major Jewish organizations eventually united behind the idea.
As we were all marching together, establishment leaders justifiably congratulated themselves for this great achievement. Elie looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Yes, they did it.” Rather than splitting hairs about who had been more influential, he credited the power of the Jewish world as a whole. We had been right to act as we did, to make noise and push for change through our own resolute campaign, but we needed the establishment to see our efforts through. Elie understood exceptionally well how to unite these two forces for the common good.
Elie Wiesel’s humanism, his active concern for the voiceless, hardly stopped with his fellow Jews. He spoke out against massacres in Bosnia, Cambodia and Sudan, against apartheid in South Africa, and against the burning of black churches in the United States. He became, as others have said, the conscience of the world. Yet he never gave up or sacrificed even a bit of his concern for the Jewish people. He did not feel he had to give up his Jewish loyalty or national pride to be a better spokesman for others. To the contrary: It was the tragedy of his people that generated his concern for the world – a world he felt God had abandoned – and it was his belief in universal ideas that helped him to ultimately reconcile with his Jewish God.
May his memory be a blessing.
The Washington Post
Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.