Home Opinions Ideas Elisha Wiesel’s speech urges Jews not to be silent observers of injustice

Elisha Wiesel’s speech urges Jews not to be silent observers of injustice

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Elisha Wiesel lighting a memorial torch in memory of his father, just before delivering his speech in Auschwitz-Birkenau. YOSSI ZELIGER PHOTO

My father never forgot. The things he saw stayed with him all the days of his life. He lived to speak of them to me, and to my children. My father was a witness.

He was a witness to the worst atrocity that man has ever unleashed on fellow man. And he was a witness who believed that to acknowledge the suffering of another – and to have them feel less alone – was an imperative for every human being. He spoke for victims around the world: Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. The thought that genocides could occur in the wake of the Holocaust haunted him.

But my father was a witness to more than the Holocaust, he was a witness to the Jewish lives in Eastern Europe which it had claimed. He was a witness to his parents’ beliefs and their traditions and their values, some of which continued even in this place, even in that time: the father and son saving crusts of bread for each other, the Rabbis condemning God at trial and then praying the evening prayer.

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I remember my father followed the instructions each year to lead the Pesach Seder as if he too had been there to witness the redemption from Egypt. Can you imagine it? Pesach was the last holiday he spent with his family before they were sent here to die. And still he supplemented the direct memory of the horrors he experienced with the ancestral memory of a people given their freedom. He was a witness to a way of life that linked him to his father and his father’s father and all the way back through the generations.

And my father was also a witness to a miracle, the miracle that was the creation of the State of Israel in his time: a Jewish homeland where his sisters’ children and the Jewish people would never again be left to the world’s mercy.

‘Will you be silent…while voices in France are now denying the Vichy government’s enthusiasm for the rounding up of Jews?’

He was a witness to all these things.

What are you a witness to?

Are you a witness to the crimes that occurred here?

Will you be silent while history is in danger of being rewritten, while voices in France are now denying the Vichy government’s enthusiasm for the rounding up of Jews? Or will you be a witness that history’s lessons are going unheeded, when many in both Europe and the United States want to turn away Muslim refugees fleeing chemical warfare in Syria?

Will you stand by when African-Americans have reason to be terrified of a routine traffic stop, when Christians are slaughtered in Egypt because they are labelled infidels, when girls in Chad, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are threatened, raped, or shot for pursuing an education, when homosexuality in Iran is a crime that carries the death penalty? Or will you be a witness to those who live in fear because of the color of their skin, or their gender, or their religion, or their non-belief, or their sexual preference?

If you are Jewish… Will you wait another generation for another Pew Report to tell us how many Jews are practicing increasingly fewer elements of Judaism in the home, threatening our continued survival as a people with treasured traditions and ethics? Or will you be a witness at the britot, the bar and bat mitzvahs, the Jewish weddings of your children? Will you say kaddish for your parents – and will your children say kaddish for you? And if you are of another faith… will you witness and elevate those elements of your tradition which encourage human rights and dignity, as my father did with his?

Will you turn your back on the history of the wars launched and provoked to wipe the State of Israel off the map, to the terror she was subjected to even as land was offered for peace? Or will you confront BDS on your college campuses when it holds Israel uniquely accountable for the region’s ills while remaining silent as her enemies teach hatred to children? Will you be a witness to the anti-semitism that lurks just beneath the double standards applied to Israel?

Will you be a witness to the hope that my father represented through his words and actions? Will you be a witness to small acts of kindness in your immediate life, as well as the larger ones needed on the world stage? Will you teach your children how to be witnesses themselves, how to tell a bully from a victim, how to stand up to a bully when sides must be taken?

I will be a witness.

I am here today with my first cousins Steve and Sydney and we are witnesses that we are standing in the place where my father and mother’s families were sent to die simply because they were Jews, packed like animals for the slaughter onto the train while their neighbors watched.

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I am a witness to history and to a generation of heroes, to the veterans of the Allied Forces who liberated these camps and put themselves in harm’s way to break the grasp of Fascism.

I am a witness to my father’s deep and undying connection to his people, and to his belief in our collective humanity regardless of ethnicity or borders.

And I am a witness to my children who brought so much joy to their grandfather, to my son in whom my father’s gentle soul lives on, and to my daughter, exactly nine years old today, whose soul throws off the brilliance of a thousand suns. Her name Tziporah bears witness to a little girl of the same age, my father’s sister, who was sent to the flames here seventy-three years ago.

Each Friday night, we light the candles and sing the songs and welcome in the Shabbat together. And my wife and I once again become witnesses that the enemy has failed; we become witnesses that Am Yisrael Chai – we, the Jewish people, live.