Thursday, May 15, 2008

Elie Wiesel: If We Forget the Story, It Will Happen Again

Human Rights is a term that many people seem to take seriously. My research informs me that the best explanation of what the term means is found in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in part:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood [sic.]

Many years ago, when I was a seminary student, I had the unique opportunity to join with a half dozen of my fellow students in a sit-down conversation with a man who had all of his human rights stripped from him—a man who had been dehumanized in the most horrible ways. His name is Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel and, if you aren’t familiar with him, I pray that you do.

I don’t want to take up space recounting his story. If you’ve not heard it, may I suggest that you go HERE? Briefly, Elie is a Jewish survivor of the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Buna, Buchenwald and Gleiwitz. He tells his story in many of the books he has written.

The first of his books that I read is perhaps the most powerful: Night. It is biographical and covers the period from 1941, when Elie was twelve years old through the years during which his family and neighbors discounted the dangers posed by the Nazis into 1944 when the Jews of the town are transported to German concentration camps. What follows is the horror of dehumanization:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed....Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. Chapter 3, pg. 32

I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time. Chapter 4, pg. 50

When they (the guards) withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son. I was fifteen years old. Chapter 7, pg. 96

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me. Chapter 9, pg. 109

Prisoners liberated from Buchenwald Concentration Camp, April, 1945

In April of 1945 Elie was liberated from the Buchenwald Concentration camp, where his father died shortly before the camp was taken by Soviet soldiers. After the war he became of journalist and has dedicated his life to telling the story of the Holocaust because he believes that, with out the story, the horror will happen again and again.

During out conversation with Elie Wiesel back in 1985, I was struck by his humility and gentleness. This man who, as a child, had been stripped of his human rights—of his basic humanity—spoke softly of the past and of a future in which all humanity must be on guard to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice—all of those things that lead to dehumanization and the denial of human rights. He said, “If humankind forgets the story of the Holocaust, it will happen again.”

Perhaps not enough of us have heard Elie’s story. Perhaps we have forgotten the evil and horror of the Holocaust. Perhaps we have been so centered on our own comfort that we’ve looked the other way when human rights have been denied our brothers and sisters—when genocide after genocide has occurred since the Holocaust:

Pol Pot in Cambodia: 1975-1979 (2,000,000 Deaths)

Kurdistan (Iraq): 1988 (182,000 Deaths)

Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1992-1995 (200,000 Deaths)

Rwanda: 1994 (800,000 Deaths)

Darfur: 2003-present (600,000 Deaths and counting)

I've gone everywhere, trying to stop many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, “What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.” I answered, “When I needed people to come, they didn't. That's why I am here.” ~ Elie Wiesel

Education in the key to preventing the cycle of violence and hatred that marred the 20th century from repeating itself in the 21st century. ~ Elie Wiesel


  1. My sister had a Holocaust survivor come speak to one of her high school classes recently. She didn't say much about it though. I've read "Night", I want to read his other books one day.

  2. Excellent, Rev Saint. Very well done.

  3. he tells an amazing story... yet sadly the lesson is forgotten, over and over and over again...

  4. i agree with angel, it's amazing how people just chose not to remember. and how the same thing keeps on happening and everybody chooses to turn a blind eye.

    Eli Wiesel is truly amazing.

  5. hi nick. perhaps you could explain - in simple terms - the difference between obama and hilary clinton to us brits? and why you support the former ... perhaps it could be part of your next blog post. we get the coverage of the US elections on our news, but no-one bothers to explain what either candidate can bring to the mix. it just seems to drag on and on ...

  6. Very well done post Nick. What a great man. Cheers!!

  7. Thank you. I have noticed that denying human rights to a person or a people is the first step toward dehumanizing them and then may come the denial of life itself.

  8. Great post

    Is this a good time to let you know that my cat is snoring and I'm half nekkid again

    Please pray for me Nick, please pray

    TK Kerouac's HNT

  9. Good post Nick.

    We are going to Krakow, Poland in October and fully intend to visit Auschwitz. Some people have asked "How can you go there it will be too sad, too traumatic". My answer is "I am going to see where so many people lost their lives and remember them - that is all I can do for them now - they should never be forgotton."

  10. Very powerful post, SS Nick!

    This is the 1st I'm hearing about today being "Bloggers Unite for Human Rights"... wish I had known sooner.

  11. This is very eloquent, Rev Nick. It is like one of your sermons. We miss you and your sermons here in Cannelton.

  12. I admit that I had never heard of Elie WEisel before or all of those genocides. I wonder why they don;’t teach us this in school?

  13. Nicely done, Nick.

  14. I have heard so much about Elie Weisel, and Night is on my must read list for this summer. Lately, all my reading time has been filled with 6th grade reading material for my daughter's home school.
    I loved this post !

  15. My favorite Elie Wiesel quote is “Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never its victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten.”

  16. Well done to you oh Saintly one... and your last post as well.

  17. “What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.” I answered, “When I needed people to come, they didn't. That's why I am here.”

    This is what set Mr. Wiesel apart from pretty much everyone else.

    I wonder if I would be able to live up to his example? Unfortunately, I doubt it.

  18. Elie Wiesel is a hero. To dedicate one's life to peace and lovingkindness after being the victim of such powerful hatred and cruelty--that is amazing heroism. Such an inspiration.

    Thanks, Nick.

  19. He is a hero of mine... a wonderful man and what an amazing opportunity you had to meet the great man himself...

    ... and today there are the holocaust deniers and with the demise of any survivors the story has to be told and told and told

    ... today in our schools in Great Britian the holocaust is being removed from the curriculum as not to offend muslims

    funny world we live in... huh!

  20. My son was reading "Night" in school, so when he brought it home, I read it. Now...he is SO not a reader, but he talked about this book so much, and how it touched him. It touched me too....esp. the part about the hair...I don't know why, but that got to me. The things this young boy lived through to become the man he is today is astounding.