Keeping the message alive
Books are all very well, but if their content is not in living minds, they are no more than processed pulp and pigment (or pixels). They might be read in the future, but unless their message is promoted by those who have read them, even that potential will be lost.
And so with Elie Wiesel. We must keep reading his words.
Perhaps more than anything else, he will be remembered for Night. His contribution to the conscience of humanity goes much further, but that harrowing memoir made the experience of the Holocaust personal to millions who came later, as well as for those who lived through that cataclysm but from a distance.
The book started out small, in French, in 1955. The English translation published in 1960 drew a few more readers. And slowly its impact grew, adding to the tide that broke the hush that had fallen over the horrors of the extermination camps, with translation into another 28 languages and millions upon millions of sales. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey chose it for her massive book club, guaranteeing hordes of new readers, and thus hordes of new minds awakened to the Nazi reality.
That awareness cannot be allowed to dwindle, not just about the Holocaust but about inhumanity wherever it is occurring. Wiesel fought so hard to illuminate that struggle around the world. His call for persistent and never-relinquished vigilance carried through more books and articles and talks — about Darfur, Ethiopia, Bosnia, and Argentina, and before all those, the Soviet Union.
In the mid-1970s, he went to South Africa despite the boycott that kept businesses and many cultural figures away to protest the racial oppression of the apartheid regime. He told audiences there that he opposed that isolation, and believed in the power of communication as a far more powerful tool to combat bigotry.
His care for that population was as evident and heartfelt as in so many other regions. Speaking to a journalist in Cape Town, he said that if the people of South Africa could overcome the racism and division in their country, their example would inspire the world. It was perhaps the first time ever that someone had pointed out their potential to do good and not merely to be victims.
But as with the words of all our sages, it does us no good if his message now lies silent between closed covers. The wisdom verbalized by generation after generation of thinkers and explorers and creators has to be seen to be of value. The People of the Book had better be readers of those books if humanity is to keep moving forward rather than regressing.