Emotional Health

Overcoming Prejudice: The Legacy of Elie Wiesel

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”–Elie Wiesel


Elie Wiesel 1928 - 2016

Elie Wiesel
1928 – 2016

This week the world mourns author Elie Wiesel, who was freed from Buchenwald at age 16 and went on to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust in his many books. One of his main goals, which he more than achieved, was to make sure that an accurate record of what happened would be known and remembered, as a record but also as a warning. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among other honors. President Obama described him as “the conscience of the world” when speaking of him a few days ago.

As psychologists attempt to understand the effects of trauma, Mr. Wiesel stands out as an example of someone who attempted to overcome it by taking action. One of the few avenues open to those who have suffered loss and abuse, besides mourning, is to “turn passive into active.” Sometimes this takes a negative turn, as in the case of abuse victims perpetuating abuse on others. The best-case scenario occurs when the victim overcomes the sense of helplessness he or she has endured in trying to help prevent the same crimes being directed toward others, as Mr. Wiesel did.

Genocide is perhaps the worst of crimes imaginable, and the Holocaust in particular has stood out because the crime was not only premeditated, but also perpetrated by the leaders of one of the most advanced nations on earth. What can we learn from this, men and women like Wiesel ask, that can help us understand human nature and, most important, help us prevent future genocides?

Many Jews, having lost relatives, take a personal interest in the Holocaust, feeling a deep connection to the victims. I don’t know for sure if I lost any family. My great-grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from Vilnius, Lithuania, in the late 1870’s, was probably fleeing in response to the Russian pogroms in the area during those years. Having done so, he spared his children, including my grandfather, born in 1873, from further persecution.

A rabbi, my great-grandfather remains mostly a mystery to me. I know he originally settled in Kansas, where immigrants were given free land by the U.S. government to cultivate. He eventually moved on to San Francisco, where family legend has it he endured the 1906 earthquake from a sick-bed with wheels on it, causing him to roll back and forth across the room as the tremors shook the building, his long beard flying in the breeze.

Having the ability to immigrate to the United States, and land his family in California to boot, he helped ensure that his descendants prospered. One of his daughters became the first woman dentist in the state, and my grandfather became an attorney and sucessful businessman(until the Depression, at least) who eventually settled in Los Angeles. His own four children, including my father, flourished and all achieved the postwar “American Dream” that seems so elusive today.

I have often wondered, however, about those left behind in Lithuania. My great-grandfather had six children, and I imagine he must have had siblings. Did they leave as well, or did they stay behind? If so, their families almost certainly died. Just this week, The New York Times wrote of the discovery of an escape tunnel dug by hand from a “ burial pit” in the woods outside Vilnius:

Dr. [Richard] Freund and his colleagues, working with the PBS science series NOVA for a documentary that will be broadcast next year, also uncovered another burial pit containing the ashes of perhaps 7,000 people. That would be the 12th burial pit identified in Ponar; officially known today as Paneriai.

From 1941 until 1944, tens of thousands of Jews from the nearby city of Vilnius, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, were brought to Ponar and shot at close range. Their bodies were dumped into the pits and buried.

“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust,” Dr. Freund said. “For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.” According to Dr. Freund, the events at the site took place about six months before the Nazis started using gas chambers elsewhere for their extermination plans.

I have not been able to discover anything. There have been moving accounts of people who have gone to Europe in search of records of lost relatives. Many of those who left just before the Holocaust, like Sigmund Freud, who fled to London in 1938, lost everyone who remained. Freud had three elderly sisters who died at Treblinka and a fourth perished in Theresienstadt, though he would never learn this since he died the next year.

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