While I was teaching at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Elie Wiesel visited our college twice, in 1983 and 1985. We started an active correspondence then, and between 1984 and 2009 I received more than three dozen letters and notes from him plus telephone calls.
And we met on several campuses including at Boston University where I was invited to celebrate his 70th birthday. The three-day event, “The Claims of Memory,” was a “symposium and celebration of the life and work of Elie Wiesel.” On April 30, 2006, it was good to see him again at the D.C. demonstration “Save Darfur: Rally to Stop Genocide.”
Our correspondence dealt with human rights violations, personal memories and insights and some current events. Having been born in Germany, I benefited greatly from his vast knowledge of Holocaust-related issues. One outcome of our emerging friendship was my decision to lecture on and teach courses on the “Holocaust and other Genocides.” I also led a dozen student trips to former concentration camps and places of persecution. By the time of his death, Wiesel had probably formed hundreds of friendships with people around the globe. Forming friendships was indispensable to him, and I wonder how he could remember them all. He wrote me that “friendship is never anything but sharing.”
Once, when I commented on a few bad teachers I had in post-war Germany, Wiesel reacted quickly.
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“Yes, I was lucky,” he said. “I had good teachers. You were less lucky. ... How then does one become a competent educator? There is – must be – a moment of awakening in every human being. You realize that life has a purpose – and that words can die, just as people die, if we allow them to vanish. And so, we infuse them with life. And fervor. Isn’t this the best weapon against indifference?”
Indifference and memory: They became key words in Wiesel’s life.
He admired the writer Franz Kafka, as I do. In response to some passages I had written on Kafka, he replied, “Kafka’s voice is prophetic. Better yet: it comes from the present. The absurdity of violence. The invisible frontiers of guilt. The power of anonymous men and women of action. The threats that dominate so many lives. Who is on trial now and who is the judge? We know the executioners.”
On the acrimonious Bitburg controversy: Wiesel discouraged President Reagan from visiting the cemetery that also has graves of Hitler’s criminal SS. Reagan went anyway, on May 5, 1985. Wiesel expressed his disappointment and anger. “Bitburg: people try to forget that incident. They will not succeed. It was a kind of watershed in our persecution of moral politics. Yes, you are right: Bitburg was also an insult to the Jewish German soldiers who may be buried there. Really – why did the German people accept to bury SS men in military cemeteries? I do not understand. But then, there are so many things I cannot understand.”
You realize that life has a purpose – and that words can die, just as people die, if we allow them to vanish.
On racism and bigotry he wrote on June 12, 1985: “You are right: so much bigotry in 1985! Stunning, revolting! At times, I am sorry I am no longer a regular journalist. If I had a column, I would speak up more often, and perhaps with more forceful indignation.” After Dallas I wonder: Is there less bigotry in 2016? Or more? Will racism, violence and bigotry ever diminish in this country?”
Did he ever share with me his feelings about the absence of a just peace for Israelis and their neighbors? No, he never did. Some of his critics have expressed their disappointment over Wiesel’s failure to address the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, he might have become a powerful force behind the endorsement of a regular and constructive dialogue between the warring parties. I believe that his voice might have reduced or perhaps terminated the prolonged suffering of the Palestinian people. Wiesel preferred silence over involvement. However, he spoke up on topics and conflicts about which many of his critics were silent.
On Oct. 21, 2009, he sent his last message. “We will meet again one day in the future. As you know I am overwhelmed with work, commitments and seemingly endless travel. I look forward to seeing you when things slow down. Warm regards, Elie.”
Now his travels have come to an end. But what will not end are my memories of one of the most remarkable and peaceful activists of our time. An activist, but not necessarily a saint. In a note to me he said, ”I may not ask anyone to be a saint; all I can expect from anyone is to be human.”
Hans M. Wuerth is a professor emeritus at Moravian College. He lives in Chapel Hill.