In 1959, when I was still in high school, I read Night, by Elie Wiesel. After finishing the book, I remember thinking to myself, “how could anyone get through all that he did and still have any hope?” In an effort to understand the answer, I read many more of his books — he wrote over 50 during his life — and I have 10 of them on my shelf today, two of which he autographed.
Wiesel was an extraordinary human being whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person when we invited him on two occasions to come to University of Dayton while I was provost. Wiesel was known not only for the quality of his writing but also for his advocacy for all of suffering humanity — the victims of the Shoah, of the war in former Yugoslavia, and of apartheid in South Africa. He spoke and wrote on behalf of the Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Cambodian refugees, and Argentina’s disappeared. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Nobel Peace Prize. When he was given the Peace Prize in 1986, the chairman of the Nobel Committee described Wiesel as “a witness for truth and justice,” someone who survived the death camps to become “a messenger to mankind—not with a message of hate and revenge, but with one of brotherhood and atonement.”
Many of Wiesel’s statements have resonated with me for many years: “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” Or again, “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Or again, “I have tried to keep memory alive. I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”
Certainly, I was in good company in my appreciation for Wiesel. It was François Mauriac, a renowned French Catholic novelist, who helped Wiesel get Night, published (now translated into 40 languages), and it was Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg (who by the way contributed a powerful chapter to our first Institute publication, Beyond Violence) who helped him get settled and find work in the United States.
I flew to New York with Mr. Wiesel after one of his visits to the University of Dayton and we talked through the entire flight. I remember I told him a joke: “What do you get when you combine a Mafioso and a deconstructionist?” He said he didn’t know. I said, “An offer you can’t understand.” He roared and vowed to use the joke himself. I also asked after his son, Shlomo, who then was in his early 20s. He sighed and smiled, “His passions are sky diving and weight lifting!”
For me, Elie Wiesel brought home the richness and depth of the Jewish tradition, made me aware of my obligation to oppose injustice wherever it exists, and reminded me to treasure history, even when it is tragedy. May he rest in peace!