former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, current chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and friend of Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel’s great mission on behalf of Soviet Jews
By Natan Sharansky, op-ed in the Washington Post on July 4
Perhaps better than anyone else of our age, Elie Wiesel grasped the terrible power of silence. He understood that the failure to speak out, about both the horrors of the past and the evils of the present, is one of the most effective ways there is to perpetuate suffering and empower those who inflict it.
Wiesel therefore made it his life’s mission to ensure that silence would not prevail. First, he took the courageous and painful step of recounting the Holocaust, bringing it to public attention in a way that no one else before him had done. His harrowing chronicle “Night,” originally titled “And the World Remained Silent,” forced readers to confront that most awful of human events — to remember it, to talk about it, to make it part of their daily lives. Then, as if that weren’t enough, he turned his attention to the present, giving voice to the millions of Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. Although he is rightly hailed for the first of these two achievements, it was the second, he told me on several occasions, for which he most hoped to be remembered.
Wiesel first traveled to the Soviet Union in 1965 as a journalist from Haaretz, on a mission to meet with Jews there, and was shocked by what he saw. Those with whom he spoke were too afraid to recount Soviet persecution, terrified of reprisals from the regime, but their eyes implored him to tell the world about their plight. The book that resulted, “The Jews of Silence,” was an impassioned plea to Jews around the world to shed their indifference and speak out for those who could not. “For the second time in a single generation, we are committing the error of silence,” Wiesel warned — a phenomenon even more troubling to him than the voiceless suffering of Soviet Jews themselves.
This was a watershed moment in Soviet Jewry’s struggle. While the major American Jewish organizations felt a responsibility to stick to quiet diplomacy, wary of ruffling Soviet feathers and alienating non-Jews in the United States, Wiesel’s book became the banner of activists, students and others who would not stay quiet. He had realized that the Soviet regime wanted above all for its subjects to feel cut off from one another and abandoned by the world. Indeed, I can attest that even 15 years later, Soviet authorities were still doing their utmost to convince us — both those of us in prison and those outside — that we were alone, that no one would save us and that the only way to survive was to accept their dictates….
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