The work of Elie Wiesel, who died last Saturday at the age of 87, was, before all, concerned with the task of memory, of preserving the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the beauty of pre-War Jewry in Europe.
But he didn’t just speak about memory for preservation’s sake; Wiesel saw a utility in memory, in how it would inform the way bystanders would act in the face of oppression. Wiesel argued that there was a choice to make in that time, and mere observance was not one of them. To be a bystander was to be complicit in atrocity, while intervention was the highest expression of humanity.
In the late ‘90s, then-President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton hosted a series called “The Millennium Evenings,” inviting luminaries to the White House to “highlight the creativity and inventiveness of the American people through our ideas, art and scientific discoveries.” During one such event, Wiesel, then a professor at Boston University, gave a speech called “The Perils of Indifference.”
Speaking eloquently and forcefully, he said:
Indifference is not a beginning, it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.
In addition to that speech (and many, many others to be found on YouTube), the 92 Street Y has been digitizing their cache of incredible Wiesel speeches. From 1967 to 2014, Elie Wiesel spoke there 180 (!!) times. Almost all of those appearances only have audio available, but his final appearance in 2014 is filmed in full. From the 92Y announcement:
He shared his insights in a longstanding series on Jewish wisdom and teachings, delivered the Annual State of World Jewry Lecture, and engaged in fascinating conversations with Eric Kandel, Marvin Kalb, David Axelrod and many others. In 2010, Professor Wiesel gave his first and only concert appearance at 92Y, when he shared with us melodies from his childhood.
In 2014, Wiesel was introduced by the likes of Joe Lieberman and (again) Hillary Clinton, then gave a moving speech, thanking the 92Y for continuing to have him back, and urging those in the audience to continue his fight. “Once upon a time,” he said, ” a week was a long week. Once upon a time, a year was infinite. And today already we know, years, weeks, months… life is short. It’s what we do with it, is what matters.”
You can access the archive 92Y here, and watch the celebration of his 180th appearance below: