Illinois Holocaust Museum, community remember renowned humanitarian Elie Wiesel

More than seven years after Elie Wiesel spoke near the yet-to-open Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, christening the new institution on a cold and relentlessly rainy April afternoon, his words rang out at the museum once again.

Wiesel, an Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor, author, respected humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, died July 2 at age 87. During its memorial commemoration for him last week, the museum replayed his speech from April 19, 2009 — at least a generous portion of it.

"Has the world learned the lesson?" he asked at the museum's grand opening in Skokie. "Sadly, I must confess, the answer is no."

"Had the world learned the lesson," Wiesel continued, "there ought to be no Cambodia and no Rwanda and no Darfur and no Bosnia and no racism ... and no Nazi marches here in Skokie."

Wiesel left the thousands bundled up against the cold underneath a sprawling tent that day with what he considered a simple lesson: "Whatever happens to one community affects all communities," he said.

Revisiting Wiesel's 2009 speech last week was only one way in which the museum engaged in what the humanitarian always said was vital in approaching the Holocaust: Remembering.

"Those of you here in Illinois have courageously shown to your fellow Americans the importance — the essential obligation — of memory," Wiesel said during his Skokie speech.

Those at the museum last week said the power and eloquence of Wiesel's words will allow infinite future generations to remember the Holocaust — as well as the survivor and leader who refused to let the world forget.

"He was one of the first leaders that was able to stand up and speak up -- speak up for all of us survivors, speak his thoughts," said survivor and museum president Fritzie Fritzshall. "He was not told to be quiet like the rest of us."

Fritzshall said that Wiesel's early words were especially important because so many survivors were told to forget and concentrate on starting a new life. "We couldn't and we didn't," she said.

"Elie Wiesel in those days had the privilege ... of having a mike and standing up and speaking up and speaking for the rest of us and speaking for humanity and speaking for the world," Fritzshall said.

When the museum first announced the commemorative event for Wiesel, museum officials said, the response was so great that it had to be relocated to a much larger downstairs room. Hundreds packed in there Thursday to pay tribute and, of course, to remember.

"Elie Wiesel seemed like the living embodiment of the every-person Holocaust survivor for so many around the globe who don't have the privilege that we do as part of our museum family here to know and hear from our cherished survivors," said museum CEO Susan Abrams. "Elie Wiesel really was that voice for the world at large."

Storyteller and associate professor at Northwestern School of Communication Rives Collins read a passage from Wiesel's sparse and seminal memoir "Night," which plunges the reader into the tragedy and horror a teenage boy faced in the Nazi death camps where he would lose his family, and his life would change forever.

Iroquois Community School teacher Kristin Gottschalk expressed just how important "Night" has been for her students.

"Facts and figures are important, but students can't seem to grasp the sheer magnitude of numbers," she said, adding that "Night" is the one Holocaust book her students "cling to, remember most."

"His honest and raw details engross the students," she said about the author. "As adolescents, my young students identify with young Elie and the relationship he has with his father. The detailed writing helps the students experience the struggles to understand the horrors he faced and his will to survive."

The teacher said her students vividly remember the many details Wiesel writes about in the book -- Moshe the Beadle, the journey in a crowded cattle car, the eight words that separated his family forever — "men to the left, women to the right."

Last week's commemoration included personal audience reflections, too — a former fourth grade social studies teacher on why it was so important to her that her students hear Wiesel's voice; the reading of an eighth grade student's letter to Wiesel on how his book "changed my outlook on life" and the assurance that "people will see the world differently because of you"; a Holocaust survivor's gratitude to Wiesel for helping her break her silence; a good friend of Wiesel's who said he enriched the lives of all he knew.

Leo Melamed, Wiesel's longtime friend and chairman emeritus of CME Group, read a somber poem in both Yiddish and English in memory of Wiesel; seven survivors each lit a candle after reading a short and memorable reflection that Wiesel wrote or spoke some time in his life.

A short distance away from the museum, just before its doors had officially opened seven years ago, Wiesel told people that "life is not made of years, but of moments." He told them we need to embrace life, make it count, stand up for those in need.

"We must think of the living, and therefore, whenever and wherever living human beings suffer, we must do something to honor their dignity," he said. "Whenever people live in fear, we must be there."

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Area residents remember Elie Wiesel

During a trip to Florida several years ago, Glencoe resident Bruce Bachmann was introduced to Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Price winner, by a mutual friend. Soon, Bachmann and Wiesel went for a walk on the beach where, instead of discussing the world's problems, they focused

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