Wiesel ‘made his life count’

Published 10:20 pm Friday, July 8, 2016

By Rev. Dr. Thurman R. Hayes Jr.

It is often said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s a good reason to study history.

When it comes to that horrible part of human history known as the Holocaust, may we “Never Forget!” We must never forget that Adolf Hitler systematically murdered six million Jews.

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No one did more to preserve the memory of the Holocaust than Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2.

For a decade and a half after the end of the World War II, very little was written about the Holocaust. It was simply so awful that most survivors had great difficulty even speaking about it. Understandably, they wanted to just move on with their lives.

But in 1960, two events changed that. One was the capture of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, one of Hitler’s henchmen, had been one of the leading Nazi organizers of mass murder.

The Israeli Mossad had sought him for years. Finally, on a lonely road in Argentina, they grabbed him and sent him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. This gripping story is told in Neal Bascomb’s excellent book, “Hunting Eichmann.” It is a spellbinding story.

The other event that happened in 1960 is that Elie Wiesel’s memoir, “Night,” was published. With powerful prose, Wiesel told about being loaded into a cattle car with his family and taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

There, he watched “The Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, wave his baton like a bandleader, decreeing that some would go to the left and some to the right. Elie watched as his mother and his little sister were separated from him and sent to the ovens. His last image of them was of his mother stroking the hair of his little sister.

Wiesel wrote, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke.”

At the end of the war, an emaciated, 16-year-old Elie Wiesel left the concentration camp with tattoo A-7713 on his arm, and a determination to tell the world about the atrocities he had witnessed.

He later said, “If I survived, it must be for some reason. I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore, because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person.”

In his speech in which he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1986, Wiesel said, “If we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

Wiesel became one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C. If you have never visited, I strongly recommend that you should.

He also became a leading advocate for the cause of Russian Jews who wanted to immigrate to Israel. Today there are more than a million of them in their ancestral homeland. Wiesel’s efforts helped them get there.

This was a person who made his life count. He did not waste the tragedy he had endured early in life, but used it as a catalyst to help others and make the world a better place.

Dr. Thurman R. Hayes is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Suffolk. Follow him on Twitter at @ThurmanHayesJr.