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.”