It was on this date five years ago that Elie Wiesel died.
The Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate felt a tremendous responsibility to bear witness to all that he and others suffered.
“If I survived, it must be for some reason: I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore because in my place someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot,” he told a New York Times interviewer in 1981.
This evening I re-read Wiesel’s brief Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from a few years later in 1986.
In this speech he said, “No one may speak for the dead” and yet, in another speech a few years after that, he said: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness. For not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories.”
Elie Wiesel was constantly alternating between sorrowful memories and the faith that animates persons toward action and responsibility.
The past for him was never a restrictive horizon because he saw so many contemporary injustices that demanded a response, a preferential option for the ones most in need today.
He said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
What strikes me most are the closing words of his address, filled with an immense sense of gratitude and responsibility:
“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.”
What a mature response to suffering – not to retreat into self-pity, even when that would be quite understandable, but rather to be summoned to self-gift, willingly poured out for the sake of others.