Today, Holocaust survivor, "Night" author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel joined President Barack Obama at the site of Buchenwald, one of Nazi Germany's terrible concentration camps, to speak out against indifference and humanity's inability to learn from its own worst moments. "Memory has become a sacred duty of goodwill," said Wiesel, but he worried that "the world hasn't learned."
Wiesel went back to his time in Buchenwald as a prisoner, described watching his father die there, and wondered what he would say to him now: "What can I tell him? That the world has learned? I am not sure."
Said Wiesel: "Had the world learned, there would be no Cambodia, no Rwanda, no Darfur, no Bosnia. Will the world ever learn?"
Seeing Elie Wiesel there at Buchenwald, returning as one of the world's great moral leaders to the place that forced him down that path, flanked on one side by Angela Merkel, the leader of the country that once put him there, and on the other by Obama, the first black U.S. President in a place representing the absolute worst evils of racism; that was an amazing moment. But moments must be followed up by more moments, and action.
"Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you... because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place." For his part, Obama said: "I will not forget what I have seen here."
Great. Awesome. Done. But now what? The Wiesel speech was all over the cable nets, and is burning up Twitter. The image of the kindly-faced elderly man with snowy-white hair blowing in the wind beside the solemn-faced U.S. President and German Chancellor was a great TV moment. But moments must be followed up by more moments, and action.
Hold that thought for a moment. Check this out, from the Elie Wiesel Foundation site:
To Our Friends:
We are deeply saddened and distressed that we, along with many others, have been the victims of what may be one of the largest investment frauds in history. We are writing to inform you that the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity had $15.2 million under management with Bernard Madoff Investment Securities. This represented substantially all of the Foundation's assets.
The values we stand for are more needed than ever. We want to assure you that the Foundation remains committed to carrying on the lifelong work of our founder, Elie Wiesel. We shall not be deterred from our mission to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice around the world.
At this difficult time, the Foundation wishes to express its profound gratitude for all your support.
The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
"This represented substantially all of the Foundation's assets." $15.2 million and 20 years of good works, of building something that not only makes a difference but stands for making a difference, every day -- gone.
Well, actually, that's not quite true - $15.2 million may be gone, but it doesn't represent all the assets of the Elie Wiesel Foundation - not by a long shot. The asset of Wiesel himself, standing there beside President Obama at Buchenwald, a living reminder of a very bad memory — one that he refuses to allow the world to forget.
More broadly, there's the asset of what Wiesel stands for: Fighting indifference to suffering worldwide — see above re: Bosnia, Darfur, Cambodia, Rwanda — and forcing people to pay attention. There's the asset of tireless activism by Wiesel and his wife, Marion; the programs set in motion by the foundation, like Beit Tziporah and the Darfurian Refugee Program to provide education and recreation for child refugees; and the overall message of ethics and tolerance and humanitarianism and standing up for what's right.
All of that was brought front and center today in an amazing, unforgettable moment. But when the moment fades, that's when the action has to begin.
One more quote from Wiesel:
"The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference."
Don't be indifferent. It just takes a moment.
Update: Full transcript of remarks by President Obama, Chancellor Merkel and Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald earlier today available here.