Lessons On Tolerance From Elie Wiesel

FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2012,  photo Elie Wiesel is photographed in his office in New York.  Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and
FILE - In this Sept. 12, 2012, photo Elie Wiesel is photographed in his office in New York. Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor has died. His death was announced Saturday, July 2, 2016 by Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

With the passing of Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, we have lost a steward of one of history's most heinous episodes, a champion of tolerance, and a guardian against forgetting. I learned tolerance from Mr. Wiesel when I was sixteen and his lessons led me to a career in public service. His death occurs at a time when such leadership and vision is most needed.

Born in Romania in 1928, Mr. Wiesel witnessed the most horrific consequences of intolerance. It began with isolation, as his family was targeted for their faith and then segregated into a ghetto. At 15, after Nazi occupation, they were deported first to the Auschwitz concentration camp and then to Buchenwald where his parents and sister were murdered. After the camp was liberated by American troops in 1945, Mr. Wiesel made his way to Paris and began a writing career.

During the years following his release, Mr. Wiesel became an advocate against violence, repression, and racism. In 1960, he published Night and was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this definitive account of the Holocaust. He served as Chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, the Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and turned his lessons into action in the face of violence in Darfur and Kosovo. As a teacher and advocate, he passed to us memories of his experience, warned against the dangers of forgetting, and called us to action against similar injustices.

Among his many accomplishments, Mr. Wiesel also established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize. It was through the Foundation that I first met Mr. Wiesel in December 2000 at the Conference of Tomorrow's Leaders. I was sixteen and one of forty high school students from across the United States he invited to learn lessons and build strategies to promote cultural and religious tolerance.

I remember my first impression of Mr. Wiesel, his white scarf unpretentiously wrapped around his neck; he carried himself with a balance of poise and humility and spoke to us with subtle but certain purpose. To inspire our efforts, he allowed our group into his world and introduced us to key leaders including then-Senator Hillary Clinton, the civil rights hero, Congressman John Lewis, and the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, each of whom knew only too well the risk of resurgent intolerance.

2016-07-06-1467777922-2900992-ElieWieselandJonathanFantiniPorter.jpg

An early conversation I had with Mr. Wiesel was formative in shaping my life. After sharing my father's experience as a young student who was imprisoned and tortured for his democratic beliefs during Argentina's "Dirty War," Mr. Wiesel responded with words I have carried with me ever since: "to observe injustice, without action, is indifference." I wrote these words down that day. It was from Mr. Wiesel that I came to understand the value of diversity, the great risk of intolerance, and our individual duty to act against these social ills. It was his guidance early in my life that led me to a career in public service. Working from within government, I have tried to carry his vision forward of a more tolerant and inclusive world.

Mr. Wiesel's moral leadership is needed now more than ever. In similar fashion to the instability that led to the rise of authoritarian elements during Mr. Wiesel's youth, our world is undergoing seismic transformations. The disruptive global changes have left many without recourse and fueled demagogues and extremists who exploit the frustration of the disaffected and seek to drive a wedge between different ethnicities, nationalities, and faiths with the insidious hope of gaining power and engendering conflict.

As our society navigates these times of change and looks to solutions, we must heed the lessons of tolerance that Mr. Wiesel took such care to pass on from his experiences: the consequences of intolerance, the dangers of forgetting, and our duty to act against violence, repression, and racism whenever they stand before us.

Your guidance and leadership will be sincerely missed, Mr. Wiesel, but thanks to the gift of your words, we will never forget.