Elie Wiesel’s Undying Message: Don’t Just Memorialize. Act.

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By Sara J. Bloomfield 

In 1973, five years before President Jimmy Carter would appoint Elie Wiesel to chair a commission to determine how the United States should memorialize the Holocaust, Wiesel was already a prominent author and thinker. On the other side of the planet, I was an untested middle school English teacher in Sydney, Australia, fresh out of an American college. No one could have predicted that 20 years later we would be together at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

But something happened in Sydney that perhaps foreshadowed our common destiny. It was an event that forever changed my students – and me. I chose to have them read Wiesel’s iconic memoir “Night” in hopes that it might address – and ameliorate – some of the rampant prejudice among my students in this multi-ethnic, working-class community, teeming with immigrants and resentments. Indeed, they were deeply moved.

They were also shocked to discover that I was a Jew. They had never before seen one and were astonished that I was so “normal.”

It was a transformative moment for all of us. And”transformative” is the word that defines the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel. His memoir has transformed millions of people worldwide. His vision for the museum was as an institution that would transform the living by remembering the dead. In 2005, Elie and I traveled to Romania, where he was instrumental in transforming that nation from one that denied its complicity in the Holocaust – Romania is second only to the Germans in the number of Jews it killed – to one that now hosts an Elie Wiesel Institute devoted to Holocaust research and education.

In 1986, the Nobel Committee called Elie a “messenger to mankind.” While that is true, it is not complete. He was one of the few whose message was not just delivered, but heard – if, sadly, too rarely heeded. I sensed that one of the great sorrows of Elie’s life was the failure of the world in the face of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. He recognized that giving a voice to victims was necessary but insufficient. Action was required.

But it was Elie’s singular voice – a voice whose moral clarity resonated with millions from all walks of life – that was his hallmark. He also boldly envisioned the museum as a voice. He called it a “living memorial.” For him, memory was sacred but it also had to have a purpose. He saw the museum as a unique moral platform that would serve as an antidote to one of the world’s gravest problems – indifference.

He himself challenged indifference at the highest levels. In spite of his relationships with all the presidents, he did not hesitate to call them to task. In 1985, he publicly admonished President Reagan for visiting Germany’s Bitburg cemetery, where 47 SS officers are buried. And at the dedication of the museum in 1993, after speaking about his beloved mother and the how the world abandoned her and all the Jews of Europe, he turned to the newly elected President Clinton. In front of almost 10,000 people, Elie challenged him to do something to stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

Elie never presented himself as having all the answers. He was a man of moral certainty who was also plagued by doubts. Although never consumed by cynicism or anger, he was driven in his pursuit of questions – endless questions. He always said that the museum is not an answer. It is a question.

At the dedication ceremony, he said the museum is “a lesson. There are many lessons. You will come. You will learn. We shall learn together.” We did. And we do. He is now silenced, but his voice – a voice that both inspires us and challenges us – lives on.

Special To The Washington Post · Sara J. Bloomfield 

Bloomfield is director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.



  1. Survivor durable and strong.

    Yet Torah was not focus directed but rather the holocaust survivor holds fast to his own need to clarify the terrible acts. How he endured is very scary. The Kaliver Rabbi became himself Torah strengthened and is a huge voice for Torah today. Elie helped Israel survive the aftermath of the tragedy. If we are to continue to survive, only Torah can keep our thoughts and strength.

    Rare soul.

  2. That’s the thing about Elie Wiesel. He was strong. You learned to have feelings.

    But he was not Torah strong. You might know him as a non-orthodox jew and you would still break a lobster. He did it all to prevent another holocaust but we now no longer have him. We must be strong for Torwh. The decimation of Torah today is the non-affiliated jew who wants a non-kosher lifestyle. Elie was great for his day but we must go on with Torah. I look at his joy and find moods that needed Torah to perfect. His strength was joyous for living but as that is not perpetual, we must know he was right to make reason but increased the fear of G-d less by the limited discussion of Torah.

    My feelings are hard. A great soul missed entirely but had he been invested strong in Torah, this tzaddik could have been a gadol kept memory for the whole of repentance and kiruv would have been a focus hoped stronger as well.

    Had he joyfully always covered his head, one might wonder if he could have reconciled the hate of the holocaust with the strength of knowing Hashem. But that too may have been hard. The holocaust took too much from us. Mostly too may have been Elie Wiesel’s feelings about strength in Torah. Moons bless the stronger future. Too many were horror.

    This makes one wonder. Did Mr. Wiesel understand the humor of Torah or was that impossible. We must find our strength. He will forever be remembered but the strength of Israel must have the need of joy in Torah.

    Living to know Elie jives yet understanding Torah makes us the soul we must have. Kingdom loved. Millions must be remembered. But now millions must also be grown. Only Torah can keep us holy.


  3. I like the comment above, but I feel it’s too critical of Elie. Please remember that this man went through the hell of the Holocaust- our Gedolim have said that one can never judge a Holocaust survivor.

    • My grandmother was a native of germany ,and starting with the ’30s went through everything (including Lodz, Auschwitz,Death march) even more than ,say, those from Romania like Weisel, did.

      Still ,she considered it immature( even while dwelling in places like Delaware) those who used the Holocaust as an alibi for their ireligious lifestyles


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