Most baby boomers probably realize that our generation was defined by the end of World War II, when soldiers and sailors and airmen came home and started families. We are the happy result. But memories persist of the unhappy, downright terrible repercussions of that war, and no one recorded them more eloquently than author, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Wiesel’s voice and writing inspired many baby boomers to pursue careers in human rights and diplomacy.
I met Elie Wiesel once.
It was at Auschwitz. On the 40th anniversary of its liberation.
He was there to remember it. To mark his people’s liberation from the Holocaust. To mark his own liberation from its horrors.
I was there to report on it.
One could have no delusions about how this man had suffered in that insufferable place. Not after he wrote in his own Auschwitz account called Night, “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”
But at the same time, one might have thought that Elie Wiesel also, somehow, could have been happy, 40 years later, in that singularly sad spot. Happy that the degenerate dregs of Auschwitz no longer were a death camp but a muscular monument to his people’s survival. Happy that by becoming the archivist of arguably the most malicious mass murders in the history of mankind, he was rich, he was revered. And that because of what he wrote, the rest of us might never forget.
But he didn’t look happy. He didn’t talk happy. He didn’t act happy. He was sad.
Sad that necessity had forced him to put pen to paper, sad that for many years after the war, relatively few among its survivors dared to speak of the Holocaust, let alone write about it for the sake of time immemorial.
Sad that some men of hate had reduced others of innocence — men, women, and children of innocence, to be sure — to the most primal of instincts and the most minimal form of survival. And reduced others to ash.
Three times I’ve walked through the ashes of Auschwitz, the most meaningful being that day with Elie Wiesel. I emerged looking not just at the big picture of persecution, but also looking at the small one. Asking questions like, how would I have handled it if someone stole my shoes? For inmates slavishly worked to the edge of extinction, shoes could be the margin between life and death.
Wiesel’s unforgettable words, “Never shall I forget that night,” became in the civilized world’s conscience, the simpler injunction, “Never forget.”
And yet we do. Whether it’s a bully in a schoolyard or the occasional racist cop or the ubiquitous selfish thug or a madman with an assault weapon in a room full of innocent people, we forget. To say nothing of the ruthless terrorists who threaten the civilized order of today’s western world.
One obituary about Elie Wiesel said his greatest disappointment was that after the war:
“Nothing changed. Human nature remained what it was. Society remained what it was.”
In some places, in some ways, it is still night.