A Warning To Mankind

Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel is seen before participating in a roundtable discussion on "The Meaning of Never Again: Guar
Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel is seen before participating in a roundtable discussion on "The Meaning of Never Again: Guarding Against a Nuclear Iran" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. on March 2, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File Photo

Elie Wiesel left us just a year after the passing of his dear friend and fellow Auschwitz-survivor, Samuel Pisar -- my father. They were two of the youngest and boldest to have escaped the Nazi death camps, making it their life's mission to warn future generations against the dangers that still lie ahead.

Elie and I developed a special friendship over the years. During one of our first encounters, at my parents' home in Paris, when I was about 11 years old, he asked me what I was reading. "Guy de Maupassant," I responded, proud to be devouring the short stories of one of France's greatest 19th century authors at an unreasonably young age. His face darkened for an instant. As if chasing an unpleasant thought, he smiled and said: "Try Flaubert next. You will enjoy him much more." I dismissed the comment as that of a patronizing grown-up until, a few weeks later, I came across a blatantly anti-Semitic passage. In a flash, I understood. Wiesel wasn't disparaging Maupassant's literary brilliance. He was giving an earnest child a subtle heads up that strange and grating surprises can lurk in unexpected places. Today, I take this as a call to vigilance.

Nearly two decades later, Bill Clinton sent him on a Presidential mission to meet with Kosovar refugees in camps in Albania and Macedonia, as war raged in their homeland. As a young staffer at the National Security Council, I was asked to join his small delegation.

It was a heart-wrenching voyage. To watch him sit in tents for hours, in the stifling heat, and listen to these men, women and children speak of their suffering, to see in his eyes the sadness tinged with anger that this gruesome "ethnic cleansing" was occurring barely a half-century after the fall of the Third Reich, was nearly unbearable.

In Macedonia, I met an adorable little girl, Mirena, with big sparkling eyes. She grabbed my hand, smiling and laughing, and showed me around the camp, seemingly oblivious to the bleakness of her surroundings. When it was time to leave, we couldn't let go of one another. How I wished I could just take her with me! That night, I sobbed, realizing that Mirena was the same age as little Frieda, my aunt, when she and my grandmother were loaded onto a cattle train and put into a gas chamber in 1941.

Ten years after that trip to the Balkans, an improbable ecumenical delegation traveled to Auschwitz, in the cold of winter, under the auspices of UNESCO, on a mission to foster greater tolerance and understanding among the three leading monotheistic religions. Before the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, I trembled with emotion as Jewish, Muslim and Christian clerics came together, transcending spiritual and political differences, to pray to the same Abrahamic God.

The most powerful statement of the day came from a Muslim, the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Mustafa Ceric: "I came here to see for myself the evil humans can do to humans, and to say that those who deny the genocides of Auschwitz or Srebrenica are committing genocides themselves."

Today, as violence spreads throughout the world, targeting the most vulnerable civilians of all faiths, this statement rings even more true.

Now that they are no longer here to bear witness, it is up to us, their children, to speak up and be vigilant.

Wiesel and Pisar, while close friends and kindred souls, were quite different as individuals. Elie came from an Orthodox family in Romania, remained deeply pious and gentle, and devoted his life to writing and teaching.

My father was born in Poland, to a liberal and assimilated family. By the time he escaped from Dachau at the age of 16, after four years in the camps, his relationship with the Almighty had grown quite contentious. But his spirit was strong, and he developed a vibrant career as an author, international lawyer and advisor to heads of state.

They both devoted their extraordinary lives to warning humanity not to commit the same mistakes again. Their disappearance signals the twilight of an era. It fills me not just with the deepest sadness, but with fear.

Fear that, in my father's words, "After us, history will speak, at best, with the impersonal voice of scholars and novelists, at worst with the malicious voice of demagogues and falsifiers. The most incendiary among them are already calling the Holocaust a myth. As long as we are alive, we must continue to transmit the legacy of the martyrs to our fellow-men." Now that they are no longer here to bear witness, it is up to us, their children, to speak up and be vigilant.

We have our work cut out for us:

The week before Wiesel bade us farewell, Great Britain voted its way out of Europe. At the same time, terrorist carnage took hundreds of lives throughout the world. Meanwhile, in the United States, Donald Trump spewed hatred and xenophobia.

These events, and the populist folly that seems to be seducing voters on both sides of the Atlantic, carry eerie echoes of the 1930s.

Wiesel, Pisar and many of the other survivors of the worst atrocities ever perpetrated by man against man did not believe that we are condemned to fratricidal behavior or that there is such a thing as hereditary enemies. Despite all they had endured, they maintained a deep faith in humanity.

In an unexpected professional twist, my mother -- the musician in our family -- drew my father into her world during the last decade of his life. This is how he came to write one of his greatest works, a thunderous libretto for Leonard Bernstein's monumental Symphony n.3, Kaddish, and to narrate it with some of the leading orchestras in the world.

I leave you with a brief excerpt:

"What is my message, if not that man,

Though endowed with freedom to choose between good and evil,

Remains capable of the worst, as of the best,

Of hatred, as of love,

Of madness, as of genius.

That unless we heed the lessons of the past,

Cherish the sanctity and dignity of human life,

And uphold the core values of all great creeds,

Sacred and secular,

The forces of darkness will doom our dreams of a radiant future

With peace, freedom and prosperity for all."

Today, more than ever, we must heed this warning to mankind.