US President Barack Obama on Saturday night eulogized Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and human rights activist who died earlier in the day at the age of 87, as a “living memorial” and “the conscience of the world,” and recalled a trip to the Buchenwald concentration camp with him.
“Elie Wiesel was one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world,” Obama said in a statement.
“Like millions of admirers, I first came to know Elie through his account of the horror he endured during the Holocaust simply because he was Jewish,” he said. “But I was also honored and deeply humbled to call him a dear friend. I’m especially grateful for all the moments we shared and our talks together, which ranged from the meaning of friendship to our shared commitment to the State of Israel.”
Obama said that Wiesel was “not just the world’s most prominent Holocaust survivor, he was a living memorial. After we walked together among the barbed wire and guard towers of Buchenwald where he was held as a teenager and where his father perished, Elie spoke words I’ve never forgotten — ‘Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.’ Upholding that sacred duty was the purpose of Elie’s life… He implored each of us, as nations and as human beings, to do the same, to see ourselves in each other and to make real that pledge of ‘never again.'”
A Romanian-born survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp as well as Buchenwald, Wiesel dedicated much of his life after the war to Holocaust education and promoting tolerance around the world. He authored 57 books, including “Night,” a memoir published in 1955 in which he recounted the deaths of his father, mother and sister in Nazi camps.
He visited Buchenwald with Obama in 2009, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In his statement, Obama said that at the end of that trip, Wiesel told him that after enduring the Holocaust, he and other survivors “had the right to give up on humanity.” However, the president recalled him saying, “we rejected that possibility… we said, no, we must continue believing in a future.”
Added Obama, “His life, and the power of his example, urges us to be better. In the face of evil, we must summon our capacity for good. In the face of hate, we must love. In the face of cruelty, we must live with empathy and compassion. We must never be bystanders to injustice or indifferent to suffering.”
French President Francois Hollande called Wiesel a “universal man” and lauded his “special relationship” with France, “where he studied after the war, where he published the first edition of ‘Night’… France honors the memory of a grand humanist, tireless defender of peace.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wiesel was “one of our most poignant and passionate voices for justice, for remembrance, and for applying the lessons of a dark past to shape and inform a brighter future… He emerged from one of the darkest chapters of human history consumed not by vengeance, but rather a desire to quell the fires of prejudice and bigotry.”
In a statement earlier Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Wiesel as “a beacon of light” in the “darkness” of the Holocaust and said the State of Israel and the Jewish world were “shedding bitter tears” over his passing.
“Elie, the wordsmith, expressed through his extraordinary personality and fascinating books the triumph of the human spirit over cruelty and evil. Throughout the dark period of the Holocaust, in which our six million brethren perished, Elie Weisel was a beacon of light and an example of humanity that believes in man’s inherent good,” he said. “I am grateful for the privilege of knowing Elie and of learning so much from him.”
President Reuven Rivlin said Wiesel was a “hero of the Jewish people, and a giant of all humanity.”
Rivlin called him “one of the Jewish people’s greatest sons, who touched the hearts of so many, and helped us to believe in forgiveness, in life, and in the eternal bond of the Jewish people. May his memory be a blessing, everlastingly engraved in the heart of the nation.”
American Jewish groups also mourned the death of Wiesel.
The Anti-Defamation League called him “a voice of conscience for the voiceless victims of the Holocaust and for all victims of genocide. In his writings, he eloquently bore witness to the dehumanizing acts of anti-Semitism and hatred that came about during Hitler’s reign in Germany and that led to the death of six million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust.
“His written works about the Nazi genocide were unforgettable, but his passion in speaking out repeatedly against anti-Semitism and in defense of the Jewish state as a home for dispossessed Jews around the world made him one of the great Jewish voices of conscience for his generation,” the ADL said in a statement.
“The world has lost a unique voice and moral conscience from the darkest chapter of human history, but Elie Wiesel’s legacy, through the power of his many books, speeches and actions, shall live forever,” the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, said in a statement. “Wiesel’s life was an inspiring, indeed towering, example of an individual’s willpower to overcome the worst of human evil, keep alive the memory of six million murdered Jews, and stand guard throughout against the dangers of extremism, indifference and historical amnesia.”
Wiesel’s death “leaves the world bereft of a profound moral conscience,” B’nai Brith said in a statement. It added that “his books and lectures taught us with power and grace, but served also, in our own times, to teach us the lessons of history’s darkest moments.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder called Wiesel “a beacon of light” and said the Jewish world “owes him an enormous debt of gratitude.”
“Today, Jews and non-Jews around the world mourn a man who was undoubtedly one of the great Jewish teachers and thinkers of the past 100 years. His passing leaves a void that will be impossible to fill. At the same time, his writings will live on,” he said.
Agencies contributed to this report.