When Elie Wiesel died recently at age 87, humankind lost a moral giant. Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor, liberated from Buchenwald death camp by American soldiers in April 1945. After studying literature, philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris, he became a journalist. He wrote dozens of books, including his first novel, Night, which came out of his death camp experiences. It was translated into 30 languages. He helped establish the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A scholar and gifted teacher, he taught at Boston University, among other institutions.
Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Nobel Commission describing him as “one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.”
Many years ago, I met Elie Wiesel, which is one of the blessings of my life. Night and his other work had moved me. I dreamed of meeting the author. After his speech at Southwest Missouri State University, we met at a reception and talked. For ten minutes or more, I monopolized him. We discussed the nature of good and evil.
As a teenager, he had experienced the monstrous evil of Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, his parents and a younger sister dying in the camps. He had known colossal evil, but it had not overcome him. He had overcome it. And he was overcoming it with good through his writing and political activism. He championed human rights. He condemned apartheid in South Africa and genocide in the former Yugoslavia.
Talking with him, I knew that I was in the presence of a gentle, humble and even holy man. God was in him.
Reared in Judaism, Wiesel struggled to reconcile the God of love with the existence of evil. He abandoned his faith in God in the camps, feeling abandoned by God there, only later in life to make peace with God. He and God must be having some deep conversations now. Surely, Eli Wiesel sees all existence, including history’s catalogue of atrocities, with clarity.
Today, evil is ascendant. ISIS and its sympathizers commit mass murders here and abroad. Politicians rouse and rally their followers with hateful rhetoric. Neo-Nazi parties are gaining power in France, Sweden, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. A sniper kills five police officers in Dallas. Gun violence threatens us all, and there is no political will to stop it. Killing continues.
Humankind has lost a moral giant in Elie Wiesel. Inspired by him, and in keeping my baptismal vow to “resist evil,” I hope I will have the courage to confront evil and do all in my power to overcome it. I also hope that multitudes of others will do the same. To do nothing about evil or to be indifferent to it, is, according to Wiesel, “the epitome of evil.”