by Albert Garih
The first time I saw Elie Wiesel was on television in France in 1967. In the wake of the Six-Day War, a French network presented a program that consisted of a screening of Otto Preminger’s movie Exodus, based on Leon Uris’s novel, followed by a debate between three Jews and three Arabs. At that time, there was so much tension between the two sides that the Arabs wouldn’t even agree to sit in the same studio with the Israelis. On the Israeli side was a man who stood up and left, arguing that he had once been treated like he was subhuman in Auschwitz, and he refused to accept the same insulting treatment again. That man was Elie Wiesel, and today, 50 years later, I am still in awe of his dignity. The other two men on the Israeli side remained so that there could be a debate.
That was my first introduction to Elie Wiesel. Since then, I have read many of his books, starting with the Jews of Silence, in which he described the plight of the Jews in the former Soviet Union, then the trilogy (Night, Dawn, and Day), the two volumes of his autobiography, and a few more. I also had a chance to hear him speak some 40 years ago in a synagogue in Montreal. Since I have lived in the United States, I have witnessed his courageous political statements, whether to President Reagan about his visit to Bitburg Cemetery or to President Clinton about Bosnia, and in the few years that I have worked as a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I have been able to admire his monumental contribution to the creation and work of the Museum.
Finally, I happened to have been seated two seats away from him at the Museum on the day of President Obama’s visit in 2012. I had a chance to approach him and exchange a few words in French, my native language and the one that he mastered so impressively as a young refugee in post-World War II France and that all his books were written in.
What has always struck me was his eloquence, how he was able to find inspiring words in every circumstance, to touch everyone who approached him, and how he commanded respect after having been denied it in the camps. He was the quintessential role model of dignity, humanity, and decency, and to me, he has been an inspiration ever since the first time I saw him briefly on that French television program.
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