To my grandchildren, on the day you each turn fifteen and a half:
It might seem funny to be receiving a letter from me at your half-birthday, but by now Grandpa has probably clued you in that it is best just to humor me if what I do seems unusual… That’s what he does… And I love him, anyway.
Although this letter might seem funny, it is actually quite serious. I’d like to talk with you about something I think you are old enough to learn about, even if your parents may not agree. In fact, they probably would not like me to tell you what I am about to, because, in their eyes, you are still children needing to be sheltered from the harshness of the world.
(And as I write this, I pray, that in the years it took for you to turn 15½ the world has not taught you this lesson already.)
The reason I want you to read this at your half-birthday is that half-birthdays are better days for thinking deep thoughts about what it means to be human and alive and part of the world, whereas actual birthdays are better for celebrating those things.
And fifteen? Why this age? Because I want to introduce you to someone who was fifteen when he learned this lesson. His name is Elie Wiesel. He was born in Transylvania (no he is not a vampire…) Transylvania is the name of a region in Romania, but for a few years, when he was a boy, the borders of the country shifted and his hometown of Sighet became part of Hungary. Sometimes during war, borders can shift like that. Other things can shift, too, like the rules people live by, or the things they value, but we’ll get to that later. Let me tell you more about Elie.
He was born on September 30, 1928, which means that he is five years older than your Great Grandma. His parents, Shlomo and Sarah, owned a grocery store. He had two older sisters, Hilda and Bea, and a younger sister, Tsiporah. They lived in a house on a corner in town. They were Orthodox Jews, and at the age of three, Elie began to study at the Jewish school. As he grew, he spent much of his time in study and in prayer.
By the time Elie was a teenager, World War II was already being fought in Europe. News of the war reached his home town, but few paid much attention. About this time, Elie made friends with a man named Moche who was a caretaker at his synagogue. Both were interested in the subjects Elie was studying, and they often had long conversations together about these things.
One day, soldiers entered Sighet and rounded up all the foreign-born Jews, put them on a train and took them away. Elie’s friend Moche was among them. Why did the soldiers do that? The caretaker at the synagogue was probably not much of a threat to national security. Neither were any of the other people loaded on to the trains. They were taken away just because they were Jews.
Now imagine if a bus drove through your town and stopped at the home of every foreign-born Christian family and forced them to drop what they were doing and get on the bus immediately. What would you do? How would you feel? How would you cope? And when they never returned, would you seek after them or just let it go?
When it happened to Moche and the others, people in the town chalked it up to the war and felt sad, but did nothing. Rumors eventually passed that those who had been deported had resettled in another country, and life went on. Then one day, months later, Moche returned.
Many years later, Elie wrote about Moche in a book called Night. You will probably read it for History or English, and when you do, you will find it terribly disturbing. You will find it so for the same reason that your parents would not be happy with me sending you this letter–they want to protect you. Well, I want to protect you, too, but not from imaginary monsters under the bed that threaten to harm your childhood. I want to protect you from that which will harm your humanity. Already, I am sure, you have experienced people capable of cruelty or abuse. You are old enough to know that ugly things can happen in families, at school, between neighbors, even at random. You’ve watched the news and spoken intimately with your friends. You know. But what I am about to tell you goes beyond that level of cruelty.
When Moche returned to Sighet, he returned with a story. And he went from house to house telling that story as if his life depended on the telling. He was passionate. His message was urgent. But nobody wanted to listen. Why? Because what he had to tell them was unthinkable. Moche told them that soon after the trains filled with the foreign-born Jews had left Sighet, they stopped in a remote area. Everyone disembarked, and the Jews were marched into the woods. There they were made to dig a big hole and when it was finished, every one of them was shot and thrown into the hole. Then the babies were thrown into the air like clay pigeons and shot before they landed. Moche was the only one to escape because he did not die of his wound.
If you had heard Moche tell this story, what would have been your reaction? Anger? Fear? Disbelief? Passion – moving you to action? Thankfulness – that it wasn’t you who was killed? Indifference? What would have been your response? I want you to think about that, because all through your life you will be hearing of atrocities and injustices, of “man’s inhumanity toward man,” and just the hearing of it will demand of you a response.
But let’s go back to Elie’s story a little more:
When the people in Elie’s hometown heard Moche tell of his horrific experience, they tried to silence him, as if by not listening to what he had to say, the truth would go away or change. I am reminded of a pet rabbit I had when I was a child. When he was afraid, he would bury his head under his paw as if by not looking at what he feared, he himself became invisible to the threat. As silly as that sounds, watch people. We all do the same thing. And that’s what the people in Elie’s town did–they pretended nothing was wrong. Then one day the soldiers came back, rounded up the rest of the Jews and put them in an area of the town which was then enclosed in barbed wire. Not long after, these Jews, too, were forced into train cars and taken away. Elie and his family were among them.
When Elie left on that train, he was your age. Fifteen. He had parents and siblings, he went to school, he studied, he laughed, he had friends. He was like you. Then one day his mother and little sister were shoved into an oven and burned to death. He watched a child hang by the neck until the child was dead. He saw, with his own eyes, a truckload of babies thrown into a fire. And only a few months after he arrived at the concentration camp to which he had been delivered by train, he watched his own father die a slow and painful death from dysentery, leaving him to face the agony of each horror-filled day alone.
Why would I, your grandmother, tell you about such things? Because if it could happen to Elie, it could happen to you.
I am not trying to scare you. I just want to make sure you are awake. Most people go through their lives like my pet rabbit, with one paw over their eye, hoping that danger will never come near them. They don’t get involved in anyone else’s troubles, they never take a stand against evil, and they pretend that it couldn’t happen to them. But it can. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I visited with Rwandan refugees in 1994, young people whose entire families had been massacred just a few days before. When I asked them how they had been able to escape, they said, “We ran the fastest…” Can you imagine running to save your life while your family is being hacked to death?
In Mozambique I visited a school where the entire previous High School class had been massacred by rebels who had broken into the building while they were studying. The walls were full of bullet holes and the windows were shattered. Yet, there in that classroom sat a new group of students determined that they would get an education, so they could lead their country into the future and away from such atrocity. These young people were your age. And I, your old Grandma, saw them myself. Yes, these things can happen.
But there is one more thing you must know. In Rwanda and Mozambique, and sad to say, in most places where these sorts of atrocities occur, often the perpetrators are your age, as well. “Recruiters” for this work make fine use of the idealism and inexperience of young people and therefore actively seek people like you to join them. So be aware. To those who would do harm, you are a valuable commodity. Make sure you do all in your power to remain a person, instead of a tool.
So, what happened to Elie? Several months after his father died, Elie’s camp was liberated by American troops. Now you might think having gone through such an ordeal would have destroyed any hope Elie might have had for the future. But that was not so. It is more accurate to say that his hopes and priorities and desires were rearranged, as they so often are for people who have experienced the harshness of war. At first, he was overcome by silence. He could not find words to describe the inhumanity he had experienced and the loss of his father, mother and younger sister, his home and all the people who had been his world in Sighet. But gradually, he found his voice. As Elie’s teaching assistant Ariel explained to me, half in jest, “When a Jew wants to start a rebellion, he writes a book.” That’s just what Elie did. Remember that book Night I talked about earlier? In that book, Elie chronicled his experience in the concentration camp in such a way that it gained international attention. Other books were to follow- more than thirty of them, as well as plays and articles. As he became more well known, he was able to use his fame to become a spokesperson for human rights in places like the former Soviet Union, Rwanda, South Africa, Bosnia, Kosovo and Dafur and to create a permanent Holocaust Memorial in the United States. Grandpa and I have been there. I hope we get to take you to see it, because it is a powerful way to learn a difficult but necessary lesson about what happened to all the grandpas, mothers, sisters, cousins and friends, who died during the Holocaust only because they were Jewish.
In 1986, Elie was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless work on behalf of human rights. He also received many other awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States Congressional Gold Medal, and the Grand Croix of the French Legion of Honor. In 1988 he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, and in 2006, the British recognized him with an honorary knighthood. Despite all these honors, Elie remained a humble and gracious man, devoted to his family, prayer and study. But his greatest devotion was to “memory” which he served faithfully through the telling and retelling of his story and thereby the story of the six million Jews whose lives had been extinguished in the Holocaust. Elie did this, not just to preserve the remembrance of those who had died, but in their name, to do all in his power to see that it never happened again.
When Moche and the other foreign-born Jews were taken away, the other Jews did not speak up. When the rest of the Jews were deported, the Christians closed their doors and let the “Christ killers” as they thought of them, be dragged off to their deaths. When nations, such as the United States, learned of the camps, we did nothing to stop the death trains. Why? Why were and are people silent in the face of unimaginable atrocity?
Fear is a great silencer. Often, we are silent, not because we don’t care or we don’t know right from wrong. We are silent because we foolishly believe that somehow our silence will save us; it will exempt us from the awful fate of others. What we don’t realize is that although our silence may protect us from the momentary evil around us, it gnaws away at our souls until one day, although we remain alive, as human beings we are dead. As the gospel tells us, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” That’s what I want to protect you from, dear grandchildren – from losing the very essence of what it means to be human.
Fear is a silencer. But far worse than fear is indifference. Fear, at least, is a reason. Indifference is no reason. Indifference means that there is no relationship between you and me. What happens to you affects me not at all, and I may not even notice. Indifference is what allows us to watch the news each night and while hearing about murders, genocide, natural disasters and other people’s agony, quietly eat our dinner and think about what our next entertainment will be. In his book entitled Legends of Our Time, Elie spoke about the effects of indifference upon those who suffer. He said, “At the risk of offending, it must be emphasized that the victims suffered more, and more profoundly, from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner. The cruelty of the enemy would have been incapable of breaking the prisoner; it was the silence of those he believed to be his friends–cruelty, more cowardly, more subtle–which broke his heart.”
Elie, the boy who at fifteen endured the horrors of the concentration camp, devoted his life to a courageous, sustained protest against indifference. As he told me, “The young man I was then, is in me still, and he does not let me away with easy answers.” In reviewing one of Elie’s books, the reviewer made this comment which seems to sum up that devotion, “While Elie Wiesel lives and writes, there will be no rest for the wicked, the uncaring or anyone else.”
And that, dear grandchildren, is the reason I am writing to you about him. In 2007, I had the privilege of being his student, of hearing his wisdom, of being able to ask him questions and hear his answers. On the last day of class, one of my classmates asked him why, at age 79, he was still teaching at Boston University, still getting up at 5 AM to spend several hours of each day writing and why he was still traveling around the world to advocate against indifference and for peace in places like Dafur. His answer was that he continued to do these things out of a sense of urgency. Knowing that he did not have many more years before his voice would be silenced by death, he could not relax his efforts. In fact, by the time you read this, he will have been gone from us for several years, having closed his eyes for the last time on a bright July morning in 2016. Since he is no longer here to hold us accountable in the face of evil and indifference, the task falls to those who remain. And so I am passing his message to you. And perhaps long after I am gone, you will pass this message on to your grandchildren, and they to theirs, for it is a message for every generation.
So often, the adjective used to describe atrocity is “unimaginable.” What I am asking you to do is to imagine. But not with a mind that sees death and killing as part of a video game with a reset button-no, I want you to see it for all its horror and awfulness and be outraged. I want you to know that it can happen, that it does happen, that modern lifestyle and technology and globalization does not prevent it, and perhaps has made it more likely, though with more sophisticated means.
And what breeds atrocity? Indifference, which comes from a lack of relationship. If we do not see our futures connected, if we do not see that what happens to one of us affects all of us, anything, any awful thing, is possible. How does this happen? First, we stop trying to understand one another. Then we stop feeling for one another. And soon, the other becomes a non-person, a thing, a commodity. And then, any awful thing becomes possible. Please, do not let that happen… again.
With love, Grandma Laura
PS. Here’s a picture of Grandpa and me visiting with Elie – Professor Wiesel – at his office in December 2007.