Was Elie Weisel Our Last Best Thinker?


“Look, whatever you do in life, remember, think higher and feel deeper.” – Elie Wiesel

Had Elie Weisel lived another 87 years, students of the Holocaust living in those days would still say he was gone too soon, so compelling were his personal story and potent writing abilities.

Himself a Nazi concentration camp survivor (Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buchenwald) Wiesel used his pen and voice to sear the world’s conscience with Night (1960), his haunting account of life and death in the camps.

Completed 15 years after his liberation by US troops, Night is a first-person witness to the unfathomable sadism at the core of the Third Reich’s Final Solution. The harrowing, often random work is a record of Wiesel’s direct experiences; but also his penetrating effort to philosophize and theologize about them.

It was this commitment to radical reflection that made the 1986 Nobel laureate a champion for praxis-based liberationists elsewhere. At the time of his death (July 2) he had amassed over 30 medals of honor and 20 honorary doctorates; but was more interested in the platforms the awards brought to his causes than recognition. (The Wiesels used the Nobel prize money to establish the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to international dialogue and education.)

Wiesel’s passion for peace and human rights was forged in late 1920s Romania, when as a youth along with his parents and three sisters he became caught up in the SS Corps’ drive to purge eastern Europe of Jews. (Both parents and one sister perished in the camps.)

Following the war, Wiesel immigrated to France, where he worked as a journalist and teacher before moving to New York City in 1955. It was there he met and married Austrian immigrant and fellow Holocaust survivor, Marion Erster Rose.

A decade passed before the sad-countenanced Wiesel began chronicling his life in captivity. He later explained the gap as emotionally necessary if he were to tell others about the true degree of the Nazis’ sterile inhumanity.

But once begun, his career as a thinker and author quickly proliferated, establishing Wiesel as the foremost living scribe of the Holocaust narrative. (He authored over 40 books, most of them Holocaust related.)

While Wiesel’s name has long been synonymous with the ovens; less is known about his efforts to dismantle oppression elsewhere. He called out by name the totalitarian figures, ethnic xenophobes, warmongers and corporate opportunists that conspire to exploit the vulnerable – a prophetic and unequivocal activism that endeared him to millions, but drew death threats and physical attacks from anti-Semites and Holocaust revisionists.

More nuanced and defensive was Wiesel’s stance on Israel. While he readily acknowledged the state is not without fault in the constant tension with its Palestinian neighbors, he nonetheless condemned the US for opposing new settlements in Jerusalem: “Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture—and not a single time in the Koran ... It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city ...”

In her article written at the occasion of his death, Associated Press reporter Verena Dobnik captures the many facets of Wiesel’s journey and influence on Holocaust history. But as Dobnik infers, on par with his contribution to history is his contribution to critical thinking as a way of life – an entire worldview in which hard questions are posed and parsed in the quest to “think higher and feel deeper.”

On that count, Elie Wiesel outlived the handful of panoramic thinker-activists of his era, Gandhi and King chief among them. Which raises the question, was he our last?

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Contact him by email at donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2016


Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2016 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652