Elie Wiesel belonged to humanity. Though he was a Jew first, he transcended tribal and national boundaries and spoke on behalf of everyone who knows the despair that comes from cruelty and indifference.
I met Elie Wiesel twice. The first time was in 1972 at the Brandeis Camp Institute (now the Brandeis-Bardin Institute of the American Jewish University) while a senior at UC Berkeley. He and I spoke briefly then, but he wrote me a little hand-written note the following month that I cherish and that has motivated so much of what I do and believe as a rabbi. It reads simply “Remember to be a witness.”
I met him a second time in 1987 when I served as the Associate Rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC. My wife Barbara was serving then on the National Board of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN). Along with her on that board was Mary-Anne White, the wife of the former American Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White (z’l – he died last year from complications of prostate cancer).
Ambassador White was the one who identified the four murdered American nuns. He was serving as well in El Salvador when Archbishop Romero was assassinated in his church.
Ambassador White, appointed by President Carter to stop a revolution in that tortured land, described Roberto D’Aubuisson, the leader of the death squads, as a “pathological killer.” When President Reagan took office, one of his first acts was to fire Ambassador White because of his public accusations against the Salvadoran regime that had tolerated and supported D’Aubuisson’s death squads. Unfortunately, this ended White’s diplomatic career, but he grew in the hearts and minds of the Salvadoran people because he spoke “truth to power” as Elie Wiesel did in the White House publicly to his friend President Reagan because the President was preparing to visit the graves of Nazis at Bitburg, Germany as a favor to the German leadership. He told President Reagan that his place was at the graves of the victims, not the murderers.
Together, Barbara and Mary-Anne White (who was then the President of the Girl Scouts of America) teamed up and brought Elie Wiesel to CARECEN’s cause. He became a significant supporter of their efforts.
As Elie Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Price he said – “No human being is illegal!” That quote became the tag-line of CARECEN in its efforts on behalf of El Salvadoran refugees seeking political asylum in the United States.
In light of the millions of refugees seeking safe shelter in the world today, Elie Wiesel was then, as always, prescient. His words, conscience and compassion as a witness has been lost tragically on millions of Americans spurred on by the hateful, hard-hearted and exclusionary rhetoric of one presidential candidate who would bar these tempest tossed human beings from ever coming into America and finding safe haven here.
May this Fourth of July celebrating American freedom remind us of the blessings of liberty and democracy that we enjoy, and of the conscience of this blessed man that graced and served humankind that is at the core of the American spirit.
Zecher tzadik livracha! May the memory of this righteous human being be a blessing for us all and for the generations to come. Amen!