Elie Wiesel, who died Saturday at the age of 87, lived a life of heroism and eloquence that word by word, honor by honor, distanced him from the human hell he experienced in the Holocaust without ever quite freeing him.
Even as he became famous, symbolizing the world’s desire to heal from World War II, bearing witness – and confronting the powerful wherever he saw injustice – anguished him. I witnessed the toll his efforts took on him in April 1985, after he confronted President Ronald Reagan, about a planned visit to a German military cemetery in Bitburg, despite 49 of Hitler’s SS Stormtroopers being buried there.
White House strategists had anticipated a great moment, a meeting of two eloquent defenders of democracy: the strapping, perpetually-jaunty president and the wispy, tortured writer, a Holocaust refugee, thanking his President and his adopted nation for championing freedom. Reagan was scheduled to award the Romanian-born novelist Elie Wiesel the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement at the White House, on April 19, 1985, the 42nd anniversary of the Polish Jews’ anti-Nazi uprising, the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt.
Unfortunately for Reagan, this ceremony coincided with a storm over his upcoming German visit. Reagan felt bound by his promise to the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to visit Bitburg, hoping to reconcile further with Germany. Most Americans objected. In a rare moment of left to right unity, the leaders of the Moral Majority and the NAACP, of the Catholic War Veterans and the AFL-CIO, all signed a letter saying the president “dishonors the sacrifices of millions of American and Allied soldiers who fought and died to liberate Europe” and “mocks the suffering and death of millions of innocents, including six million Jews.” Fifty-three Senators and 101 members of Congress also signed bipartisan protests.
White House officials were embarrassed by the sloppy staff work – or, possibly, Kohl’s trickery – that resulted in what Wiesel called “not just a cemetery of soldiers,” but one with “tombstones of the SS, which is beyond what we can imagine.” White House officials, who later called the visit “probably the biggest fiasco of Mr. Reagan’s Presidency,” grimly told reporters: “For now, we’re stuck with it.”
Before the ceremony, Reagan’s people tried muzzling Wiesel, instructing him not to criticize the president and limiting Wiesel’s remarks to three minutes. For someone who had been wrenched from his home when fifteen-years-old, who lost his parents and younger sister to the Nazis, to be honored by America’s president was a big deal. But Wiesel threatened to boycott if he couldn’t speak freely. Reagan’s chief of staff Donald Regan acquiesced, reluctantly.
Before the ceremony, the Wiesel-Reagan “meet and greet,” extended to 26 minutes, delaying the ceremony. In the Roosevelt Room, knowing he was boosting a critic, Reagan graciously hailed Wiesel for memorializing the Holocaust and for defending Israel, Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews and humanity. Reagan articulated what could be Wiesel’s epitaph: “’He teaches about death, but in the end he teaches about life.”
Nervous, tired after a sleepless night debating whether to attend and if so, what to say, Wiesel began, equally graciously, by praising Reagan. As someone who had “learned that in extreme situations when human lives and dignity are at stake, neutrality is a sin,” Wiesel appreciated Reagan’s bold denunciation of Communist totalitarianism. Then, Wiesel confessed: “Mr. President, I wouldn’t be the person I am, and you wouldn’t respect me for what I am, if I were not to tell you also of the sadness that is in my heart for what happened during the last week.” His voice cracking occasionally, uttering what would become among his most famous lines, Elie Wiesel said: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
The image of the refugee guest lecturing his presidential host for ten minutes testified to America’s democratic vigor. When reporters asked if he feared seeming to be lecturing the President, Mr. Wiesel shrugged. “No, no, I am not a moralist,” he said. “I am a teacher. I’m a storyteller. I have words. Nothing else. I represent nobody. All I did was give him a few words.”
That morning, White House officials, scrambling, had announced that Reagan would visit a concentration camp too. On May 6, Reagan visited Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg. Addressing the controversy, Reagan said: “To the survivors of the Holocaust: Your terrible suffering has made you ever vigilant against evil. Many of you are worried that reconciliation means forgetting. Well, I promise you, we will never forget.” And echoing the phrase that Wiesel immortalized, the president proclaimed: “Never again.”
I had first met Professor Wiesel in September 1983, when I cross-registered as a graduate student into his legendary seminar at Boston University. A year and a half later, after spending Passover 1985 visiting Soviet Refuseniks at a time when it looked like the Soviet Union would last forever and these people would never be free to emigrate, I visited him to brief him on this movement he helped launch. But first, we discussed his trying trip just three days earlier to Washington. Rather than being pleased with himself for heroically defying the pressure from Reaganites and Jewish community worrywarts to keep quiet, Professor Wiesel looked terrible. Having been born in freedom as an American, I had not appreciated the superhuman courage it took for this concentration camp survivor, this European refugee, this naturalized American, to confront the popular American President, in the President’s own home, before the world.
That moment further propelled Wiesel and Holocaust remembrance onto the world agenda. It is not coincidental that Wiesel soon won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize for bearing witness to the Nazi “genocide” and teaching that “it is equally important to fight “indifference” wherever evil festers.
Wiesel’s confrontation with Reagan was only one of many star turns in a half-century long meteor shower of books, articles, lectures, protests, and honors, whereby this writer, teacher, and activist illuminated the world—and enlightened millions. Highlights would include: starting to break the silence about the Holocaust, especially with the publication of La Nuit in 1958, and Night in 1960; exposing the oppression of Soviet Jewry in The Jews of Silence in 1966; denouncing the “Zionism is Racism” resolution with a powerful embrace of Israel in Le Figaro in 1975; revisiting Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey in 2006, and heroically defending the victims of South African Apartheid, the Cambodian Boat People, the targeted Tutsis of Rwanda, the abandoned people of Darfur, and the Muslims and Christians who suffered when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated.
Professor Wiesel was the modern world’s moral witness. With Abraham Lincoln’s eloquence, Charles Dickens’ eye, Menachem Begin’s grit, Betty Friedan’s iconoclasm, Nelson Mandela’s courage, and Pope John Paul’s vision, he was a one-man scourge of dictators and a friend to the oppressed. Expanding his scope beyond Jewish concerns, he also went far beyond Jewish suffering. He often celebrated the Jewish heritage the Nazis sought to destroy. He helped expand the concept of memory, understanding that remembering those who perished is the first step, honoring the lives they led is the second step, but living their wisdom: recreating their intellectual and spiritual worlds—in our freer new worlds—is the eternal next step.
Although Professor Wiesel needed little “branding” assistance from the likes of me, I made one minor contribution to protecting his image. A few years ago, I was the historical consultant for a miniseries about the Reagans. When they staged the famous White House confrontation over Bitburg, I watched in horror as their “Elie Wiesel” had a black hat and a beard. I intervened and they replaced the actor. By looking like most modern Jews but being far more learned than most, Professor Wiesel built bridges within the Jewish community and beyond, easily communing with Oprah and Obama, with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and with Reagan.
Three years ago, when I interviewed Professor Wiesel for my book about Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution, he was discouraged. For all his efforts, despite the lessons the world should have learned, he said, “The world didn’t change, deep down the world didn’t change,” Anti-Semitism persists. “If anyone told me in 1945 we would still have to fight anti-Semitism, I would say, ‘go to a psychiatrist,”’ he sighed, “and yet . . .”
Indeed, evil persists. But Elie Wiesel taught how to fight it. His greatness, epitomized by his confrontation with the American president, makes this European-born Holocaust refugee an all-American character, who died, poetically, on July Fourth weekend. His faith in democracy and humanity, despite being scarred by totalitarian and inhumanity, embodies America’s legendary optimism – and reflects our country’s ongoing, magical ability to accept refugees from all over, imbue them with our spirit, and embrace them as our own.