WASHINGTON — The Armenian National Institute (ANI) mourns the passing of human rights activist Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), and recalls one of the most vocal opponents of the crime of genocide. Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wiesel evoked the compelling authority of a victim who triumphed over his oppressors by writing and speaking about the importance of remembrance and prevention. His works became the voice of the millions of Jewish victims of Nazism and racism that raged across Europe when Wiesel was a young man and which destined him to a concentration camp.
Wiesel’s powerful denunciation of denial as a form of double killing of the victim introduced a critical concept in understanding the problem and legacy of genocide and played a major role in appreciating the dilemma of Armenian Genocide survivors and their descendants who were confronted with the implacable policy of the Turkish government. By challenging denial and upholding the importance of memory, Wiesel created new bridges between the Jewish and Armenian communities in the United States, France, and elsewhere.
Wiesel, who served as the first chairman of the United States Holocaust Council appointed by President Jimmy Carter, approved the recommendation to include reference to the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was among the 126 prominent signatories, all Holocaust scholars, holders of academic chairs, and directors of Holocaust research and studies centers, who in 2000 “signed a statement affirming that the World War I Armenian Genocide is an incontestable historical fact and accordingly urge the governments of Western democracies to likewise recognize it as such. The petitioners, among whom is Nobel Laureate for Peace Elie Wiesel, who was the keynote speaker at the conference, also asked the Western Democracies to urge the Government and Parliament of Turkey to finally come to terms with a dark chapter of Ottoman-Turkish history and to recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
In 2000, Wiesel voiced his strong support for the Armenian Genocide resolution during the 106th Congress. In a letter to then International Relations Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Operations Chair Chris Smith (R-NJ), Wiesel stated: “It is my hope that the House will go on record calling upon the President to make sure that all U.S. officials dealing with human rights are educated about the memory of the Armenian Genocide.” Wiesel explained that the hate which drove the Ottoman Empire to kill Armenians and the Nazis to murder Jews is still present in today’s world. “Violence is the language of those who can no longer express themselves with words,” Wiesel added.
In 2007, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity issued a statement signed by 53 Nobel Prize laureates that called for the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, civil society cooperation, increased official contacts, and an improvement in basic freedoms, noting that “Turkey should end discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities…Turks and Armenians have a huge gap in perceptions over the Armenian Genocide.” To address this gap, we refer to the 2003 “Legal Analysis on the Applicability of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide to Events which Occurred During the Early Twentieth Century,” corroborating findings of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
More recently Wiesel joined as co-chair with actor George Clooney for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity Selection Committee. The new award annually bestowed in Yerevan, Armenia, “on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors is granted to individuals whose actions have had an exceptional impact on preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes.”
Perhaps Elie Wiesel’s most important legacy in Armenian-Jewish relations is located in the vital leadership role he played in persuading major Jewish organizations to step forward in support of Armenian Genocide recognition. After consulting with Wiesel, who had long bewailed governments remaining silent in the face of genocide, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) dropped its hesitation in 2007. In 2016, ADL’s CEO spoke forcefully, stating:
“We have a similar responsibility to talk more broadly and recall that in our own lifetime the world did not stand up against the horrors happening in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. Too often, the response to genocide has been global silence.
So, let me be crystal clear: the first genocide of the 20th century is no different. What happened in the Ottoman Empire to the Armenians beginning in 1915 was genocide. The genocide began with the ruling government arresting and executing several hundred Armenian intellectuals. After that, Armenian families were removed from their homes and sent on death marches. The Armenian people were subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre and starvation.
What happened to the Armenian people was unequivocally genocide.”
The Romanian-born Wiesel who wrote in French contributed a preface to the 1986 French edition of Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh that had served as a source of inspiration to Jewish fighters to resist certain death during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Wiesel said: “This novel is a masterpiece…This Armenian community became very close to me. Written before the coming of Hitler, this novel seems to foretell the future. How did Franz Werfel know the vocabulary and the mechanism of the Holocaust before the Holocaust – artistic intuition or historic memory?”
In 2013 Wiesel, who had been Professor of Humanities at Boston University since 1976, sat with Richard Hovannisian, Professor Emeritus of History at UCLA, for an encounter at Chapman University in California that was billed as a “Conversation” between the two eminent educators to discuss the moral obligation of mankind to honor and preserve the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust. With the unresolved case of the Armenian survivors in mind, Hovannisian, who also served as founding chairman of ANI, posed the question whether there can ever be real justice for Holocaust victims, to which Wiesel responded with a single word: No.
In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel, reflecting upon his own commitment to standing witness to himself, a young man who was sent to die in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, said:
“And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”