|‘The word refugee is not popular, but everyone likes the idea of refuge’ … Elie Wiesel. |
Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/
Elie Wiesel by David Miliband
The writer and Holocaust survivor fought for justice, defending persecuted people of all races and religions. He taught us that the word ‘refugee’ need not be unpopular
Saturday 9 July 2016 14.00 BST
met Elie Wiesel only once, in his New York office two years ago. He had joined the board of directors of the International Rescue Committee in 1985, and continued on our board of overseers. As the new president and CEO, I wanted his advice.
Wiesel remained doughty, passionate, inspiring. “I am a refugee but the word refugee is not popular,” he told me. “But everyone likes the idea of refuge. Fight for refuge. We all need refuge.”
I remember in that moment understanding the often-cited description that Wiesel believed in taking sides – someone who knew what he was for as well as what he was against. He understood, as well as anyone, the power of knowledge and truth in the battle against ignorance. His descriptions of his first visits to Germany, and his meetings with German youth who used education to overcome their own country’s past, are not just moving, they are testimony to an openness of mind even in the midst of the worst memories.
Wiesel’s enduring legacy will not only be his story of survival through the darkest hours of humanity amid the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But also the inspiration of his lived life: his fight for truth and justice wherever he saw human dignity threatened. His visits around the world with the IRC led him to defend persecuted people of all races and religions.
This fight has never been more needed. Where globalisation should be bringing down barriers, the trend is towards putting them up. Dangerous populism and toxic xenophobia are again on the rise in Europe and the US – but also afflict minorities across the rest of the world. War and insecurity displaced a record 65 million people last year; and the system of international order that upholds peace and security is under threat.
But as much as Wiesel’s life reminds us of what we need to guard against, it also embodies what we must strive to emulate. He was not just a survivor, his story reminds us that when states open their doors to those fleeing persecution, they open their doors to knowledge, creativity and untold potential.
Wiesel’s memories have documented history, and his works have informed a generation. He taught us that, in the face of atrocity and tragedy, morality can prevail; that knowledge and truth are vital in the battle against ignorance and intolerance; and that the word refugee need not be unpopular. That is the lesson of Elie Wiesel.
• David Miliband is president and CEO of the .