Benjamin L. Shinewald served as the CEO of Canadian Jewish Congress.
The death of Elie Wiesel affords us a rare chance to consider not just a heroic life, but the very notion of heroism itself.
For several years after the last plume of human smoke rose from the crematoria, few survivors spoke of the beastliness of the Holocaust. For whatever reason – repression, embarrassment, humility – survivors somehow dusted themselves off and got on with their lives as if nothing happened.
But Mr. Wiesel, who survived both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, dedicated his life to telling the world about that time when humanity hit its nadir – and to imploring anyone who would listen to apply the lessons of his past to the horrors of our present.
It began with Night, Mr. Wiesel's seminal memoir of Jewish life, such as it was, in the Nazi camps. Though he struggled to find an American publisher and the book barely sold at first, Night caught on and changed the world. It gave voice to the voiceless, and turned Mr. Wiesel into a living symbol of the martyrdom of the innocent. It is impossible to finish his book and be unaffected by the experience.
Mr. Wiesel was an unusually gifted communicator. He wrote dozens of memoirs, novels, plays, essays, and more, overwhelmingly focused on the Holocaust and its legacy. He sold millions of copies of Night, alone. But his communication skills extended well beyond the written word. Mr. Wiesel's quiet, still voice, softly accented with a European inflection, and his sad, puppy dog eyes made him an astonishing and captivating speaker.
And speak he did, for Mr. Wiesel did not see the abject horror of the Holocaust and its relentless machinery of mass death as a one-off aberration. Instead, he saw it as an ever-present threat to humanity. What happened to the Jews yesterday could happen to someone else today, he correctly reasoned, and frequently added his voice on behalf of those who were in the genocidal crosshairs. From Cambodia to Rwanda, from Kosovo to Darfur, Elie Wiesel spoke out eloquently and urgently. In doing so, he transformed himself from a chronicler of the Holocaust into a global symbol of dignity and righteousness.
Mr. Wiesel the survivor and author was a Jewish martyr, but Mr. Wiesel the "messenger to mankind," as his Nobel Peace Prize citation puts it, was global hero. In other words, Mr. Wiesel became cherished as a hero of our times when he transcended the particular and crossed into the universal. To be sure, he remained a deeply committed Jew and inescapably a survivor until his dying breath, but his impact on the world and his success as an activist spoke to his universal message.
In this way, Mr. Wiesel was a part of an extraordinary club of heroes. Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Muhamad Ali, and others became heroes not because they advanced a particular cause, but because they appealed to universal values in doing so. They situated noble, narrow fights for their community's equality and dignity in the broader context of humanity's never-ending search for true brotherhood and sisterhood.
They also had one other thing in common. They were all flawed, in some cases seriously so. Members of this pantheon of global leaders have conspicuously failed to speak out against oppression in their own backyards, engaged in unbecoming sexual activities and – in more than one instance – came perilously close to supporting antisemitism.
Mr. Wiesel, too, had flaws, even if his were comparatively minor. Of course he did. He was a human being, in the end, and lived and breathed in this wildly imperfect world.
Our heroes are human, their imperfections are real. Their achievements ought to inspire and motivate us, while their flaws remind us that even the greatest among us can sometimes be objectionable. We have a right to demand more of them, just as we have an obligation to demand more of ourselves.