Elie Wiesel honored by U.S.’ largest pro bono law firm

Germany started its long descent into brutality and murder when the Nazi regime began to corrupt the nation’s laws, Elie Wiesel told more than a thousand guests, predominantly lawyers, on April 22 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.

In accepting Public Counsel’s William O. Douglas Award, the Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor was joined by notable political leaders, civic dignitaries and celebrities.

Public Counsel, headquartered in Los Angeles, describes itself as the nation’s largest not-for-profit law firm. Its 55 in-house lawyers and hundreds of pro bono volunteers from major law firms and corporations represent more than 30,000 children, families, veterans, immigrants and fraud victims each year.

Wiesel lauded the organization’s efforts on behalf of undocumented immigrants, often held for many months without legal counsel or resolution of their cases.

Recalling his own past, Wiesel said, “You don’t know what it means to be stateless. I never had a passport until I became a United States citizen. I can’t tell you how proud I am to be an American.”

Wiesel also paid an affectionate tribute to his wife, Marion, affirming that “everything I write, I write for her.”

The honoree was introduced by actor Jon Voight, who called for a renewed commitment to fighting an anti-Semitism that was rising across the world.

At the end of the evening, Wiesel and his wife were rushed to the airport to catch a red-eye flight to Washington, D.C. The reason was a late invitation from the White House asking Wiesel to introduce President Barack Obama at Monday morning’s remembrance ceremonies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

During the preceding week, Wiesel, in his professorial role, had conducted a series of conversations at Chapman University in Orange with hundreds of students and faculty.

Topics included such broad philosophical questions as “Why study?” “Why write?” “Why be just?” and “Why believe?” said Marilyn Harran, director of the university’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education.

The Sunday evening dinner raised $2.5 million for Public Counsel’s work and included among the introducers House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and actors William H. Macy and Mike Farrell, the latter serving as master of ceremonies.

Extensive video tributes to Wiesel came from Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Natalie Portman, Sidney Poitier, Itzhak Perlman, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and philanthropist Eli Broad.