Review and Reflection by Father John Pawlikowski, OSM, PhD
This brief volume consists of short reflections on Nobel Prize recipient and Holocaust teacher Elie Wiesel. It is one of several new books celebrating Wiesel's life and writings. The contributors to this volume a l have served as judges of the annual student ethicsessay contest established by the Elie Wiesel Foundation based in New York City. Wiesel's close collaborator in the work of Holocaust education Irving Greenberg has provided a Foreward and the Wiesel Foundation initial Director Dr. Carol Rittner offers an Afterward.
I personally cam to know Wiesel over several decades beginning with the groundbreaking 1974 international conference on the Holocaust initiated by Wiesel at the Cathedral of St. John Divine in New York City where I spoke. Subsequently we worked together for over a decade at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Over those years I discovered in Elie the same characteristics that as Carolyn Ross Johnston describes in her chapter in this new volume, characteristics she found evident in the course they taught together at Eckerd College: teaching through storytelling, asking questions and listening to responses, recognizing that "indifference" is the opposite of love, the continuing need for moral witness, and continuing resilience.
Elie made these characteristics central to the focus he gave to the annual student contest he established as a result of his Nobel Prize. They were also central to his presentations at various universities such as Florida Atlantic, Berea College, Boston University, Keene State University and Claremont McKenna as related by contributors to this volume such as Alan Berger, John Roth, and Henry Knight. Elie always emphasized that memory of hatred and violence had to be transformed by concrete actions against such realities. For the Washington Holocaust Museum he coined the motto "Remembering for the Future." For Wiesel the Museum could never be only an indifferent narrative on past history. It was this perspective
that led him to support the creation of a Committee on Conscience that would public awareness of contemporary genocidal situations and several international conferences on genocide to which he invited his Nobel Prize colleagues.
For me, the most dominant demonstration of these values, particularly resilience, came the day President Ronald Reagan paid a visit to the German military cemetery in Bitberg where Nazi soldiers were buried. We had a board meeting that day in Washington and afterwards Elie called some of us into his office to discuss what response he should make as the Chairman of the Museum to this presidential visit. There was considerable risk if Elie publicly cri ticized the American president. The Museum could lose its federal support. But in the course of an hour-long intense discussion Elie
never wavered. His commitment to ongoing witness had to prevail and he must say, "Mr. President, you should not have gone to Bitberg," fortunately President Reagan accepted Wiesel's critique and the Museum suffered no negative consequences.
The various contributors to this volume, many of them such as Alan Berger, Irving Greenberg, Henry Knight, David Patterson, John Roth and Carol Rittner capture for the reader central themes in the body of literature from Wiesel: his difficulty in trying to write about God, his strong love of Israel as a symbol of Jewish life conquering death, Wiesel was sometimes criticized for his unwillingness to engage in public critique of contemporary Israeli governmental policy.
On has to wonder hoe Wiesel would react today to certain directions Israeli policy has taken with its embrace of the Trump administration and enhanced relations with authoritarian regimes in such countries as Hungary. This might apply even more to the overall policies of the present American administration. John Roth has contributed a trenchant critique of these policies in light of the Shoah and the moral response it demands in light of Wiesel's perspective. Roth is to be praised for his willingness to take on such a politically challenging assessment. This question cannot be
ignored if we are to be truly committed to Wiesel's vision.
Elie, like all of us, had some blindspots. One that affected me was an overly simplistic view of the complex response to the Holocaust in Poland where classical antisemitism was integrated with personal moral courage on the part of th rescuers. Because of my Polish heritage Elie required me to write a letter to him demonstrating that I did not harbor anti-Semitic sentiments prior to approving my first of four presidential appointments to the United States Holocaust MemorialCouncil/Museum.
In my view, when all is said and done, it maybe that what Henry Knight so beautifully brings out in his chapter as Wiesel's greatest legacy--the present of a rainbow in human history despite the hatred and darkness that has so often enveloped us--may provide us with a measure of stability in an often chaotic world.