The legacy of Elie Wiesel: An eternal beacon of humanity

The legacy of Elie Wiesel: An eternal beacon of humanity
© Getty Images

I spent my life loving Elie Wiesel and had the honor and pleasure of knowing him, learning from him, and working with him to combat threats to the Jewish people and promote anti-genocide education.

Almost 30 years ago, Elie spoke for our students at Oxford University, electrifying the packed-to-the rafters student audience with his testimony of the Holocaust and his vision of a world where innocents were no longer slaughtered. And two years ago I accompanied his son Elisha as he delivered the keynote address at the March of the Living at Auschwitz, where Elisha bravely continued his father’s legacy of speaking out against human rights abuses, this time focusing on mass murder in Syria. 


Addressing some 12,000 youth from around the world about his father’s legacy and what it means for us today, Elisha exhorted the Jewish community to stand for gay men and women being slaughtered in Muslim lands, and the need for America to be an asylum for refugees. It was a courageous and unforgettable speech, wherein Elisha continued his father’s defining virtue of speaking truth to power.

Today, Sept. 30, would have been Elie’s 90th birthday. His Jewish birthday falls on the most festive day of the year, Simchat Torah, in three days’ time.

It seems odd that the world’s most famous survivor of the world’s great crime would be born on the most joyous day of the Jewish calendar. Elie witnessed horrors we can scarcely imagine. But perhaps the joy lies in the fact that the Jewish people survived the Holocaust and produced, in Elie Wiesel, one of Jewish history’s foremost lights to the nation.

Elie’s very name has come to bear the weight of all of the most fundamental values of the Jewish people: those of faith and of struggle, of strength and of pride, of righteous indignation and of the courage to forgive. He was, and remains, an eternal beacon of wisdom for us and our children, and an essential element in the moral bedrock of the world.

Elie Wiesel dedicated his life to commemorating the victims of mankind’s greatest crime, ensuring that it never be lost to the public consciousness. Unlike many survivors, who could not bear to face the horrors of their pasts, in his writing of “Night,” Wiesel decided to relive every horrid moment of his time in Auschwitz so that the world might know what befell the Jews of Europe, captured as it was from his own perspective.  

However, his life was not dedicated only to memory but to action, too. Publishing over 40 books in his lifetime, Elie’s works and ideas would launch him to the global fore. Once he’d achieved such influence, he would commit himself to doing all he could to protect innocent life. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel would use his renown and influence to enshrine the memory of those for whom help never came and protect those for whom it still could.

It was Elie Wiesel who would push President Carter to commission the United States Holocaust Museum, who would admonish President Reagan for speaking at the cemetery in Bitburg that contained graves of the SS, who would call upon President Clinton to protect those being slaughtered in Kosovo and the Balkans, and to ask him the piercing question of why America did nothing while yet another genocide was taking place in Rwanda. 

Elie’s absence is felt in so many of the atrocities that continue to plague our world. It’s felt in the gassing of children in Syria. As barrel bombs fell on children six months after Elie’s death, there was no voice that could shame the Western powers into taking action.

When Elie died, President Obama issued a statement calling him the “conscience of the world,” and in so doing Obama earned a permanent place in my heart. For Elie was the face of the martyred 6 million of the Holocaust, and in remembering and honoring Elie, we ensure that their memory is never forgotten.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (@RabbiShmuley), whom the Washington Post and Newsweek call “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the author of 30 books, including his most recent, “The Israel Warrior.”