Elie Wiesel, 87, died July 2, 2016. Wiesel survived Buchenwald Concentration Camp as a child and spent most of his life representing holocaust survivors and contemporary sufferers of injustice through his writing, teaching and advocacy. He was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
In an article for Providence Magazine, Marc LiVecce remembers Wiesel and reflects on his thinking and work.
Much in the world has changed since the crematoria fires went cold at Auschwitz, but the human condition has proved constant. Neighbor continues to prey upon neighbor as has been done time out of mind.
Some years back, as I’ve written in these pages before, the Oxford professor Nigel Biggar, in a Remembrance Sunday sermon at the Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, recalled a visit to the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof – the German military cemetery – at Maleme, in Crete. There, in 1941, British, Australian, New Zealand, and Greek troops fought against invading German paratroopers. An exhibition now tells the story of three brothers, two who, one still in his teens, “hero-worshipped the older one” and followed him into the elite paratrooper regiment. In Maleme, all three were killed on the same day. It is, Biggar remarked, “A heart-breaking story. A very tragic story.” But it is not the whole story. The exhibit, he continued, draws from this story the conclusion that “war is evil, war is the great plague, war it is that which we must resolve to avoid absolutely and everywhere.” Against this conclusion Biggar thought to himself, “Well, yes…but no.” Among other things, absent from the exhibit was any consideration of why it was that young German paratroopers were dropping out of the skies over Crete in the first place. That question, Biggar points out, raises the sharper question of precisely what it was that those on the ground were supposed to do in response if, in fact, war is that thing which we are to avoid absolutely.
My own exposure to the holocaust, first as a field of formal study, then as a theological crisis that eventuated in my own conversion, and then as a subject of my own vocation as a teacher and writer, has served to permanently inoculate me against pacifism. Regarding Auschwitz-Birkenau and the near uncountable other plots of land the Nazis drenched in blood, it is clear that neither harsh language, nor coaxing words, nor prayer, would, alone, have been enough to stop the slaughter. The fascist beasts, they themselves made plain, would only have left Auschwitz on their own accord when there was no one left to kill. But for all the ready supplies of Gypsies, Slavs, Leftists, Dis-abled, down-syndromes, non-Aryan POWs, Homosexuals, non-fascist resisters, and Jews – always and especially Jews — who would have come into the bloody reach of the Reich if the rest of the world had avoided war at all costs, this killing would have taken some time to abate.
…Surely, as Biggar concluded, war is to be avoided at great costs, but not all costs.
“The opposite of love,” Wiesel proclaimed, “is not hate, but indifference.” Indifference, he insisted, “is the epitome of evil.” Against it, Wiesel stood resolute:
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
….There are many ways to be indifferent. While few people or ethical systems are truly indifferent in the face of abhorrent evil, many more are practically so. That is, they are unwilling – either as a matter of principle or simply insufficient grit – to take actions that can effect genuine resistance against a given evil. Just so, it is effectively indifference to claim, as some pacifists do, that the sword wielded for peace, order, and justice is the business of the government and not the business of Christians. Christians, such claimants insist, are called away from the use of force in order to provide a witness of an alternative, peaceable kingdom. As I’ve argued before, if the peaceable kingdom were a viable alternative to force, even of the lethal kind, then God would have ordained such a kingdom instead of, rather than alongside, the government’s sword. Given that God has ordained the sword, I stand among those who infer, therefore, that the sword is necessary. And if the sword is necessary, then that makes the peaceable kingdom parasitic – because it cannot long remain in a world in which the good do not bear arms. Pacifists present a false witness to the peaceable kingdom because they are wrong in the way they imagine the world ought to be. Any ethic, any system of belief, that does not countenance, in a world that conceived Auschwitz-Birkenau, that there are times, in the last resort, when love of neighbor means bringing force to bear against their assailants – even crushing, lethal force if nothing else will do the trick, does not fully understand love. Those who demand an accounting for the blood and death that comes with fighting even wars that are just, must themselves give an account for the blood and death that comes when just wars are not fought. (Emphasis mine).
Elie Wiesel understood that to stand against injustice and to seek effective remedy, is as important for the would-be rescuer as it is for those they seek to rescue. “As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true,” he wrote. He continued:
As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.