ELIE WIESEL AND THE FOURTH OF JULY
Elie Wiesel’s death has come two days before that uniquely American holiday, the Fourth of July. This year, more than any other in recent times, we might want to remember what the day signifies. It isn’t just barbecues, fireworks, and mattress sales. The signing of the Declaration of Independence marked the birth of our country — the country that rescued 16 year old Elie Wiesel from Buchenwald in 1945, the country where he became a citizen in 1963, the country whose conscience he tugged at and whose better angels he sought to inspire.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” the Declaration of Independence says, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
You don’t hear words like that these days. Quite the opposite. Donald Trump has started using the phrase “America First” — the rallying cry in the 40s by a large group of Americans who wanted to appease Hitler and stay out of what was going on in Europe. It’s unclear if Donald Trump knows his history well enough to know the dark implications of that phrase, and it really doesn’t matter. It matters more that the rest of us remember.
In 1940, Elie Wiesel and his family were rounded up along with all the other Jews in the Romanian town of Sighet and moved into ghettos. That same year, the America First movement was born. Charles Lindbergh became the loudest and most prominent voice in the movement. In April of 1941, he gave a speech in which he said, “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.” Despite Lindbergh revealing his anti-Semitism, and despite the criticism against him, the America First movement remained a significant one. As the smell of burning bodies wafted across the German countryside, as cattle trucks full of Jewish families rumbled along the roads, the group wanted America to turn its back and stay out of it. Three months after Lindbergh’s speech, in December of 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor nullified the America First movement and propelled us into World War II. It’s worth noting, though, that if that movement had succeeded, Elie Wiesel and others would never have been rescued. We might never even have known his name.
He and his family were taken to Auschwitz in 1944. Elie and his two older sisters survived; the rest of his family did not, as he wrote about in his exquisite book, Night.
So, who are we as a country when a presidential candidate tosses out the phrase America First? Who are we when huge crowds cheer at the ideas of building a wall to keep out Mexicans, of instituting laws to keep out Muslims? Who are we when people at political rallies scream racial epithets at African-Americans, at Muslims, at Mexican-Americans? As we mourn the passing of a man who warned us about the perils of indifference, who wanted us to be haunted by memories just so we wouldn’t forget and repeat the horrors, maybe we should reflect on what kind of country we have grown into and what legacy we are creating now.
Elie Wiesel said, “Someone who hates one group will end up hating everyone — and ultimately hating himself or herself.”
A great man died on July 2. He believed we could be great. He believed we could rise above hatred. He believed that even in the darkness, there is light. On this anniversary of America’s birth, we might want to ask ourselves what we believe.