Each year, communities and organizations honor the memory of leaders and visionaries, tragedies and traumas. Over time, the memorials become more and more ceremonial. The same messages are repeated about how we must always remember and learn from the legacy of an individual or event. And each year, the ceremony ends, life goes on and the message is lost in the chaos of the daily grind.
On the anniversary of the passing of Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, teacher, writer and activist Elie Wiesel, many in-person and virtual events are held to pay tribute to his contribution to humanity. From local programs to momentous commemorations at the National Cathedral, Wiesel continues to be remembered in many forums.
Wiesel’s memory calls on us to ask the questions he himself asked of the world: How is one to believe in mankind after the atrocity of the Holocaust, which was committed by man? How is one to have hope in a world of hate and indifference? What more can we do to tackle the challenging issues of today by learning the lessons of yesterday?
Yet, among the younger generation, fewer and fewer have heard Wiesel’s name or understand how he illuminated truth and purpose for so many over the years. His message is too heavy, too Jewish, too literary, too Zionist and too frightening for a young generation trying to survive in a polarized world. Worse still, many do not know his name at all.
For the family of students who cherish every moment they had with him, it is his son who bears the burden of carrying on his father’s work. And Elisha Wiesel is starting to understand what it means to be heir to this weighty inheritance and call to commitment.
In inviting Elisha to our annual memorial program in honor of his father, I chose to focus on themes drawn from Elie’s 1974 personal essay “Why I Am Afraid.” We explored the meaning of this powerful piece of writing. What were Elie’s fears? Were his fears justified 50 years ago, and are our fears justified today? What more can we do to counter the emotional impact of being targeted as Jews? And how can we come together in spite of our differences to strengthen our unified resolve to realize our common destiny as a nation?
Elisha and I are both products of a healthy, rich Jewish home life, where topics relating to Jewish identity, Jewish history and the realities of being a Jew today were discussed openly and fervently. In our homes, Israel was not a political entity but an ancestral birthright—from the children of Israel to the Land of Israel. We were raised with confidence in what it means to be a Jew, encouraged to question and discover what that meant to us and given the freedom to explore our personal definition of it.
My discussion with Elisha led us to reflect on the meaning of fear for us and for our children, as well as the challenge of building Jewish unity, which could, if it were ever successfully realized, defeat hate and apathy. We have both experienced the obstacles to overcoming the political, organizational and ideological territorialism that plagues the Jewish communal world. We have both found the strength to overcome our own fears and persist in our mission in spite of doubt, negativity and uncertainty. And we have both become even more resolved to encourage others to understand that it is not only by standing up as advocates and activists that we can make a difference. We can also do so by empowering others through simple conversations and the study of history, Torah and Jewish resilience in the face of persecution, which has happened time and again, and, we can be sure, will happen in the future.
During the growth of Israel Forever, I was fortunate to continually receive meaningful encouragement from Elie Wiesel, whose clarity and honesty aided the conceptual and practical value of our small grassroots organization. Together, we carefully translated our years reflecting on the Holocaust into a mission that would sustain not only the memory of suffering, but the experience before, during and after the catastrophe, as well as what the Holocaust means for the Jews as time allows memory and pain to fade into the distance.
Elie never gave up his fear, because he knew that hatred of Jews is an ever-present reality, even as he was determined to fight against it. He worried about how the Jewish people could succeed in drowning out the voices of the deniers and the haters, and the power those voices were gaining in society. He believed that the Jewish future is determined by those who imbue their homes and hearts, mindsets and missions with the importance of Jewish collectivity, and an identity rooted in Jewish connections, however they may be fostered.
Elisha has emerged from the years of silence that are frequently experienced by descendants of Holocaust survivors, and found his own voice in confronting those things that frightened and concerned his father. It would not be presumptuous for me to say that Elie is watching from above with pride, and those of us who have been immersed in these issues for decades are honored to welcome Elisha’s voice and commitment to the Jewish future. Just as his father was an inspiration for other survivors to speak out, perhaps Elisha will inspire their descendants to take a leading role in the transmission not only of Holocaust memory, but of the search for how we can raise the next generation of Jews to feel confident enough to stand up and be counted among the people of Israel.
In the aftermath of his father’s passing, Elisha has found the path toward the fulfillment of his own destiny. He dreams of what kind of difference he too can make for our people. Together, we joined our voices to remind others that conquering our fears as Jews is possible, even if we cannot defeat the disease of hate that triggers it. Jewish fear is nothing new, and it will not disappear. Perhaps together we can continue the vision of Elie Wiesel, a moral guide for all of humanity, and his dream of hope for all mankind and peace for the Jewish people. To live a peaceful existence is essential to our freedom—a peace driven by acceptance, ease, kindness and love.
Dr. Elana Yael Heideman is a historian, educator, writer and Executive Director of the Israel Forever Foundation.