November 16, 2018

Elie Wiesel, the moral force who made sure we will never forget the evil of the Holocaust

Elie Wiesel, the world’s best-known and most-influential Holocaust survivor, is no longer. His death at 87, announced July 2, makes us ever more acutely aware that we are coming to the end of an era. Soon, all too soon, there will be no survivors.

Elie Wiesel was a unique figure among American Jewish leaders. Neither the director of an organization nor the head of a movement, he had no real institutional base. Unlike Gershom Scholem, Raul Hilberg or Jacob Neusner, Wiesel did not define an academic field. He was not associated with any theological or historical doctrine. He was not a rabbi, though long ago professor Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary offered to ordain him.

He was, as he liked to say, a wandering maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations and conferences, national capitals and political forums, speaking to an ever-changing global audience. His message was: Remember the Holocaust; remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.


Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. He oversaw the creation of the USHMM from 1988 to 1993, serving as its project director and as director of the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute.