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Witness to History

George Bernard Shaw once said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. But that was a long time ago: today, thanks to television, cinema and the internet, Britain has grown ever closer to America. Their celebrities, whether famous like Oprah Winfrey or infamous like O.J. Simpson, are increasingly our celebrities too.

But even today fame in America doesn’t guarantee fame across the Atlantic in Britain. The passing of Elie Wiesel is a reminder of that. His is a name that will mean little or nothing to many people in Britain, but he was a giant in the United States, where he was arguably the most important figure in the movement to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. In some ways, you could say that he helped restore the memory of the Holocaust.

Born in 1928 in Romania, he was still a child when the Second World War began. Before it ended, he would endure the notorious concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He was one of the few survivors of the once flourishing Romanian-Jewish community into which he had been born. With survival came a determination that he would devote the rest of his life to educating the world about the Holocaust. After the war he studied in France and wrote his memoir Night, describing his experiences in the concentration camps. But its poor initial sales there did not improve when he emigrated to the United States and the memoir was published in English.

Wiesel, whose optimism and will were instrumental to his survival in the camps, did not give up. He continued to write and lecture about his experiences and the urgent need for tolerance and reconciliation between human beings of different races, religions and political persuasions. Slowly he overcome the indifference of publishers and the media. His patient work was recognized when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Night was now hailed as a classic of Holocaust literature. A decade later, in 2006, it reached an even bigger audience when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her Book Club.

Before that, Wiesel had used his influence and fund-raising abilities to secure the construction of a Holocaust Museum in Washington. More Holocaust museums have followed across the United States, helping to educate new generations in the horrors that Wiesel had witnessed and somehow survived. But even as his message of remembrance and reconciliation spread, Wiesel had more misfortune to bear. He lost up to $15million of his own money and saw the finances of the Elie Wiesel Foundation badly harmed in the collapse of the Ponzi scheme run by the New York financier Bernie Madoff.

Appearing on the Oprah Winfrey show after his huge losses, he told his host that he had endured worse and remarked: “It didn’t make me more pessimistic.” Moved by his resilience in the face of adversity, hundreds of ordinary viewers sent donations to help him continue his work. But no financial loss could have diminished his moral standing or weakened the influence he had gained at the top of American society. Wiesel was an adviser – and sometimes a critic – of all American presidents from Jimmy Carter onward.

When he passed away this year at the age of eighty-seven, Barack Obama, the last president whom he would know, paid tribute to him as “the conscience of the world” and said that he was “honored and deeply humbled to call” Wiesel “a dear friend.” He also quoted one of Wiesel’s most important sayings: “Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.”