It was the 1990 March of the Living. Thousands of young people from around the world had gathered on Holocaust Remembrance Day in the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau for our closing ceremony.
Elie Wiesel began to speak. The crowd hung on his every word. As he approached the end of his remarks, his voice filled with indignation, then despair:
“How can one not be concerned with anti-Semitism? We were convinced that anti-Semitism perished here. Anti-Semitism did not perish; its victims perished here.
“Children of the Jewish People, do you ever see what I see here? I see so many children and so many parents, and so many teachers and so many students. I see them. Forever will I see them. I see them walking in their nocturnal procession, wandering, crying, praying.
“Forever will I see the children who no longer have the strength to cry. Forever will I see the elderly who no longer have the strength to help them. Forever will I see the mothers and the fathers, the grandfathers and grandmothers, the little school children, their teachers, the righteous and the pious. From where do we take the tears to cry over them? Who has the strength to cry for them?
“Years and years ago, I saw… I cannot tell you what I saw. I am afraid. I am afraid that if I told you we would all break out in tears and we would not stop. I see a young girl…”
And then suddenly, Elie Wiesel shook his head and walked off the stage, unable to share his story. It was just too heartbreaking for him to continue.
For those of us in attendance, it was something we will never forget. Here was the world’s most eloquent witness to the Holocaust, and yet even he could not bring himself to describe in words the awful fate that must have befallen that little girl. At that moment, Wiesel symbolized the dilemma facing so many survivors. Words can never adequately convey the horrors of the Holocaust, and yet how dare one not try?
Standing in the rubble of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Wiesel’s words failed him. And yet, his painful, heart-wrenching silence was more compelling and memorable than anything that even he might have attempted to articulate. The phrase “Silence speaks louder than words,” was never truer than at that moment, standing amid the ruins that saw the deaths of one million of our ancestors.
And then, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and future chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, called upon the Toronto March of the Living student choir (composed of Tara Charendoff, Jillian Stronell, Talia Klein, Jennifer Goldhar, Jenny Lass, Dena Libman, Meghan Bochner and Jennie Blitz, accompanied by guitarist Hartley Weinberg and violinist Jillian Moncarz) to sing Hannah Senesh’s Eli, Eli (“My God, My God”).
Rabbi Meir Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor, sang along softly into the microphone. Soon, thousands of participants – survivors and students, educators and political leaders, from Israel and countries around the world – all joined in, amid the ruins of the crematoria singing the song that reminded us both of the beauty and fragility of life. Where words could not fill the void, music did. And somehow, at least for a moment, we found a measure of consolation.
Among Elie Wiesel’s most memorable quotes is this one: “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.” That day, when he spoke – but more importantly when he could not – all of us became life-long witnesses to the never ending sorrow of one survivor. n
Eli Rubenstein is the national director
of March of the Living Canada.
Elie Wiesel died in New York on July 2.
He was 87.