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Speaking Out for Persecuted People

Learning Alongside His Students Previous Proud to Call the United States Home Next

Elie Wiesel spoke truth to power at moments when Holocaust memory was threatened and when people were at risk of genocide or mass violence.

During a speech at the White House when accepting the Congressional Gold Medal in 1985, Elie Wiesel implored President Ronald Reagan to cancel a planned visit to a German military cemetery in Bitburg. The visit was intended to symbolize normalization of relations between the United States and Germany on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. Visiting the cemetery, the site of graves of Waffen-SS members, was deeply offensive to many Holocaust survivors and their families. Ultimately, the president added a stop at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp before participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at the military cemetery as planned. 

In 1993, at the dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, Wiesel called upon President Bill Clinton to intervene on behalf of Bosniak and Croatian civilians in the former Yugoslavia. They were bearing the brunt of Serbian assaults in what became known as “ethnic cleansing”: torture, rape, murder, robbery, and forced displacement. Two years later, in the summer of 1995, Bosnian Serb forces systematically executed as many as 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males in Srebrenica—the largest single massacre in Europe since the Holocaust.

Understanding that gestures sometimes speak louder than words, Wiesel in 2004 returned an award he had received from Romania. He did so because the Romanian president presented the same award, the country’s highest, to two men known to be antisemites and Holocaust deniers. Similarly in 2012, Wiesel returned an award he had received from Hungary. He did so in protest of the country’s rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators and misrepresentation of the Hungarian government’s role in deporting Jews during the Holocaust.  

Wiesel explicitly linked his activism to his Jewish identity. In his 1993 remarks to President Clinton at this museum’s opening, he said about the former Yugoslavia, "As a Jew, I am saying that we must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.” When he went to Cambodia, he explained that as a Jew, he could not stay away from the victims of genocide or the refugee camps. In Wiesel’s  words, “How could a Jew like myself, with experiences and memories like mine, stay at home and not go to the aid of an entire people?”

He was a lifelong defender of the State of Israel and believed that Israel was essential to Jewish survival and continuity, so deeply wounded during the Holocaust.

“Mr. President, I wouldn't be the person I am, and you wouldn't respect me for what I am, if I were not to tell you also of the sadness that is in my heart for what happened during the last week.”

—Elie Wiesel to President Ronald Reagan, April 1985