By Adam Abrams/JNS.org
Elie Wiesel, who before his death in 2016 was arguably the world’s most well-known Holocaust survivor, reached millions of people through his writing and human rights activism. Wiesel’s audience ran the gamut from the everyman to the luminary, and one of his highest-profile relationships took center stage last week.
“You knew you were in the presence of someone who had endured the unimaginable worst of times and could still give and teach the best that love has to offer,” said famed talk show host and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey upon receiving The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity’s first-ever Legacy Award at the organization’s annual dinner in New York City. “Every day he taught, lectured and lived compassion, peace, empathy for other souls and truth.”
In 2006, Winfrey selected a new translation of Wiesel’s Night to be included in her book club, which helped propel the work to the top spot on The New York Times’s best-seller list for nonfiction paperbacks. In 2014, accompanied by Wiesel, she visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp in Poland, to film a movie detailing the atrocities of the Holocaust and the lessons that could be drawn from it.
Being linked to Wiesel’s legacy through the award “carries weight,” Winfrey said during last week’s ceremony, lauding the late author as a hero, mentor and true friend.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach – a popular author, TV host and public speaker – attended the Wiesel Foundation’s gala and said that it “was such an honor to see so many world-class personalities come out to celebrate the life of Elie Wiesel.”
“Elie Wiesel, whom I was privileged to call mentor and friend, was the living face of the martyred 6 million of the Holocaust,” Boteach, founder of The World Values Network, told JNS.org. “He dedicated his life to bearing witness. There was none like him, and we have to continue to promote his legacy and never forget the tragedy of the Holocaust, and use its horrible memory to fight genocide, human rights abuses and mass murder worldwide.”
Night – the first volume in a literary trilogy that also includes Dawn and Day – embodies Wiesel’s mission to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive by harnessing his painful experiences in Nazi concentration camps into a message of understanding and tolerance.
In the years following World War II, Wiesel worked to discover the location of Nazi war criminals. He also worked as a journalist for various publications, authored more than 40 works of nonfiction and fiction, and campaigned for the immigration of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry to Israel. He served on the International Council of the Human Rights Foundation, campaigning against apartheid in South Africa, the 1990s genocide in Yugoslavia and other human rights violations around the world.
Wiesel and his wife founded the foundation bearing his name shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986 for his humanitarian work. The foundation – whose stated mission is to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs” – organizes human rights conferences, runs an ethics-oriented essay contest for college juniors and seniors, and operates two enrichment centers that help integrate Ethiopian youths into Israeli society.
Oprah’s ‘unwavering commitment to humanity’
After contemplating the depth of Wiesel’s message, Winfrey befriended Wiesel and took it upon herself to continue his legacy through her philanthropic and humanitarian work.
“We are honoring Oprah Winfrey with the Elie Wiesel Legacy Award not only because of her dear friendship with my husband, but for her unwavering commitment to humanity and to giving voice to the voiceless,” said Marion Wiesel, the late activist’s widow, at the foundation’s dinner last week.
“Her dedication to education, especially through the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, mirrors Elie’s spirit of always teaching, valuing students, and believing in the power of knowledge,” she said.
Wiesel’s son Elisha, meanwhile, announced the launch of a new conference series for young leaders in Africa that aims to spread Elie Wiesel’s message in African academic institutions and to establish professorships in his name.
“Will you stand with my father, as I believe our honoree Oprah so very much does? Will you stand with him and defend his vision of hope?” Elisha Wiesel asked attendees at the foundation’s event.
“Will you lend your voice to DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) children in danger of deportation, to Muslim refugees fleeing to safety, to victims of shootings pleading for gun control laws, to a planet reeling from the effects of irresponsible and unnecessary pollution?” he said. “And will you keep my father’s gentle voice in mind as you argue your point with respect, not scorn?”