He survived a Jewish death camp, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, fought for human rights, and against anti-Semitism.
When he was 15 years old he was transported to Auschwitz. When I was 17 years old I first saw him there. He was then 61. He began speaking of his memories from when he was 15. He said he remembered seeing a young girl and wanted to tell us about her but was too choked up to continue. He walked away from the microphone and never finished his talk that day.
The year was 1990 and I, along with 2500 other Jewish teenagers from around the world, was amongst the first to go back to this place where so many of my ancestors perished. I knew this man from his book “Night.” Elie Wiesel was a legend, and here he was before me, here in this place where he lost many of his family and yet he survived. By the luck of the timing of my birth, I was not there to be murdered, I was there to bear witness to the physical remains of his nightmare.
I stood there clad in my blue windbreaker, the same as all of my peers. We stood in stunned silence. We had just completed the walk from the entrance of the gates of Auschwitz, the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free) which had taunted those who came before us, over our heads.
We walked in silent rows of five—the distance from the concentration camp to the death camp Birkenau (Auschwitz II.) We walked with railroad tracks stretched in the distance. Tracks that carried so many to their deaths. I can not adequately describe the feeling of entering that camp, even so many years after the end of the Holocaust. The crushing weight in my chest. The stunned arrest of my ability to feel. And then he stood before me talking to the crowd and yet, it seemed, speaking only to me.
It was only six or seven years later that I had the incredible opportunity to bring Elie Wiesel to Denver, Colorado to speak at our annual Holocaust Remberance Dinner. I was the Director of the Holocaust Awareness Institute at the University of Denver. From the moment I first heard him speak at Auschwitz II, I knew my job was to continue to share the stories of those who were persecuted. Elie Wiesel had called us all to task and I answered the call.
The day of his arrival I stood nervously in the airport. What would I say to this legend, this Nobel Prize Winner, this prolific author, this teacher? As we settled into the limo, the questions I had for him flooded my mind and as I started to ask about him he turned the tables and asked about me. One question after another. On one hand, I was disappointed, I didn’t want to talk about me, I wanted to learn more about him. On the other hand, I was in shock. He wanted to know who I was, why I was doing this work, what life in Colorado was like.
I was standing in line at a restaurant on my way to a short vacation in the mountains to celebrate our Independence Day in America when I saw on Facebook that Elie Wiesel had died. That same crushing feeling I felt in my chest when I approached Auschwitz filled me again. Yet, while in Auschwitz my emotions froze, this time, they were freed. Tears streamed down my face.
Elie Wiesel was living testimony to the atrocities of the Holocaust and he was a teacher of working towards peace. As we mourn him, we must honor the memory, not only of the legend, but of the 15-year-old young man who’s life was turned on its head because of bigotry, hatred, and violence. For this young man let us work to create a world that respects difference and values, compassion and kindness above all.
Thank you, Elie Wiesel. You will never be forgotten.