Sara J. Bloomfield is director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
In 1973, five years before President Carter would appoint Elie Wiesel to chair a commission to determine how the United States should memorialize the Holocaust, Wiesel was already a prominent author and thinker. On the other side of the planet, I was an untested middle school English teacher in Sydney, Australia, fresh out of an American college. No one could have predicted that 20 years later we would be together at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
But something happened in Sydney that perhaps foreshadowed our common destiny. It was an event that forever changed my students — and me. I chose to have them read Wiesel’s iconic memoir “Night” in hopes that it might address — and ameliorate — some of the rampant prejudice among my students in this multi-ethnic, working-class community, teeming with immigrants and resentments. Indeed, they were deeply moved.
They were also shocked to discover that I was a Jew. They had never before seen one and were astonished that I was so “normal.”
It was a transformative moment for all of us. And “transformative” is the word that defines the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel. His memoir has transformed millions of people worldwide. His vision for the museum was as an institution that would transform the living by remembering the dead. In 2005, Elie and I traveled to Romania, where he was instrumental in transforming that nation from one that denied its complicity in the Holocaust — Romania is second only to the Germans in the number of Jews it killed — to one that now hosts an Elie Wiesel Institute devoted to Holocaust research and education.
In 1986, the Nobel Committee called Elie a “messenger to mankind.” While that is true, it is not complete. He was one of the few whose message was not just delivered, but heard — if, sadly, too rarely heeded. I sensed that one of the great sorrows of Elie’s life was the failure of the world in the face of genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. He recognized that giving a voice to victims was necessary but insufficient. Action was required.
But it was Elie’s singular voice — a voice whose moral clarity resonated with millions from all walks of life — that was his hallmark. He also boldly envisioned the museum as a voice. He called it a “living memorial.” For him, memory was sacred but it also had to have a purpose. He saw the museum as a unique moral platform that would serve as an antidote to one of the world’s gravest problems — indifference.
He himself challenged indifference at the highest levels. In spite of his relationships with all the presidents, he did not hesitate to call them to task. In 1985, he publicly admonished President Reagan for visiting Germany’s Bitburg cemetery, where 47 SS officers are buried. And at the dedication of the museum in 1993, after speaking about his beloved mother and how the world abandoned her and all the Jews of Europe, he turned to the newly elected President Clinton. In front of almost 10,000 people, Elie challenged him to do something to stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
Elie never presented himself as having all the answers. He was a man of moral certainty who was also plagued by doubts. Although never consumed by cynicism or anger, he was driven in his pursuit of questions — endless questions. He always said that the museum is not an answer. It is a question.
At the dedication ceremony, he said the museum is “a lesson. There are many lessons. You will come. You will learn. We shall learn together.” We did. And we do. He is now silenced, but his voice — a voice that both inspires us and challenges us — lives on.