The news of Elie Wiesel’s death reached me on the car radio last July 2 as I was driving through Banff and Jasper national parks in Alberta. The sun had come out after a very rainy Canada Day the previous day, but the news of Wiesel’s passing arrived as a shock that darkened even that bright Saturday. I had a most personal and moving encounter with the Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, author, teacher, and renowned advocate for the oppressed 17 years prior, and I knew I needed to write something of my memories of him. Unfortunately, circumstances were not conducive that day or in subsequent days as I made my way back to the U.S. and to Florida, and the months that followed proved far more tumultuous and challenging than I had imagined. But now, on the anniversary of his death, I feel it’s finally time I share my thoughts on this man who touched my life so profoundly.
In June of 1999 I was again posted to the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, returning there on TDY at my request from my then-permanent station in Brasilia. I couldn’t bear to read any more accounts of what the Serbs were doing to the Kosovar Albanians during their onslaught on the province of Kosovo – perhaps in part due to my own partially Albanian ancestry – and I asked to be sent on temporary duty back to Tirana, where I arrived in mid-May and was to remain through most of July.
It was during the first week of June 1999 that Elie Wiesel was sent as a personal representative of President Bill Clinton to visit the refugee camps housing the displaced Kosovar Albanians in Macedonia and Albania. The President wanted to get a first-hand read on what was going on, and what the state of the refugees was, and so he turned to the man who had spent so much of his adult life speaking out for the oppressed of the world. The man who himself had survived internship, at the age of 15, at two of Nazi Germany’s most notorious death camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Perhaps because I constituted a significant part of the embassy’s collective memory, having been posted to Tirana from 1995 to 1997, including during Albania’s own internal descent into temporary madness following collapse of the country’s massive pyramid schemes, I was assigned as control officer to Mr. Wiesel. What that meant was that I was to accompany the visitor wherever he went, look after his safety and well being, oversee the translators, drivers, and other personnel assisting in the mission, serve as liaison to the embassy and whatever relevant agencies to assure that his requests were met, answer his questions about the country and the situation to supplement what knowledge he was garnering on his own, and to generally provide whatever support the President’s envoy might need or want. It struck me then as a great honor to be selected to fill this role, and it still strikes me that way.
Interestingly, in his report to the President, Mr. Wiesel said he was “accompanied by three able US government officials” during his visits to the two countries, and in acknowledging the role played by the embassies and the U.S. government agencies that assisted with the visit, he said, “They went out of their way to be helpful. They bring honor to our country.”
In truth, I felt that it was he who brought honor to us through his visit and, more than anything, the serious, sensitive, and intense manner in which he approached his role and the kindness he showed to everyone he came in contact with.
June brings heat to Albania, and the tents housing the thousands of refugees who had fled their homes in Kosovo were hot in the June sun. Elie Wiesel never faltered for a moment as we went from camp to camp, interviewing dozens of people in each camp, conducting the interviews in the tents, working through a translator, and listening intently to the unrelenting accounts of personal horror and loss that poured out. I sat in on most of these interviews, and hour by hour and day by day the strain and the sadness grew.
We got out into the areas where the camps had been set up, and this provided me with the occasion of my first-ever helicopter ride, aboard a U.S. Navy Sea Stallion that carried our entourage west out of the capital to our first stop. The schedule we kept up would have been grueling all by itself, but Wiesel was unstopping in his quest to speak with as many of the refugees as he could, seemingly disregarding any jet lag he might have picked up coming from New York, even at the age of 70 at the time.
We set up individual interviews as well as, as I recall, one or two group sessions, always in the big white refugee tents. For hours upon hours we heard women tell of watching their husbands and sons taken away and gunned down by the Serbs. We heard of parents separated from their children, of children watching their parents killed before theirs eyes, of the difficult and dangerous trek over the mountains and out of Kosovo to relative safety in Albania.
As Wiesel wrote in his report to President Clinton, “I listened to their tales of senseless cruelty and inhumanity which characterized Milosevic’s army and police; they have been reported in the international media. Still, it is different to hear it first-hand. One feels frustrated and powerless in their presence. And embarrassed. Pristina and Pec, Djakovica and Cecelija, Mitrovica and Glogovac, Kuraz and Izbica: eyewitnesses brought back harrowing detailed graphic reports from Kosovo’s killing fields. They go on and on. Forced expulsions, houses looted, villages burned, insults, threats, imprisonment, repeated rapes of young women, beatings of young men, separation of men and women, summary executions: everywhere, the process is the same. And the tormentors – who are they? Most of them are former neighbors.”
He heard again and again how it was former neighbors who were inflicting these cruelties, and I remember the interview Wiesel cites in his report: “ ‘A policeman came with his 5-year-old son,’ a man with an extraordinarily kind face told me. ‘He pointed at us and asked the boy to choose the prisoner to be beaten that morning.’ ”
When we took breaks, or when it was time to head back to Tirana at day’s end, we would watch the refugee children playing their games between the tents, as children will do.
“In this haunted world of Kosovo refugees, adults wept,” Wiesel writes in his report to the President. “Children did not. They sang. They played games. They laughed. And I no longer know what hurt us more: the children’s laughter or their parents’ tears.”
But what is not contained in those words is what we saw, again and again, which was children not just laughing and singing, but also pretending in their play to capture and execute one another, having picked up perhaps all too well what they had witnessed back home. I remember being at dinner in an open-air restaurant with embassy colleagues the evening of our camp visits and trying to describe what I had witnessed. But I was unable to get past the image of children forming guns with their fingers and using them to play-shoot their playmates in the back of the head, and breaking down at the table, not able to go on. The memory still haunts me and brings tears to my eyes even as I write these words.
It’s relevant to recall the details of Elie Wiesel’s life, being born into a town in Transylvania, a part of Romania that was transferred to Hungarian control for several years during World War II. And from there being hauled off with his family to the Nazi concentration camps as part of the Holocaust. Only Elie and two older sisters survived, their parents and younger sister killed in the camps, and the only reason Elie survived was by lying about his age, saying he was 18 and so able to work and prove useful to his captors. His life since then was marked with concern for the oppressed, and working to see that something like the Holocaust could never be repeated.
I think hearing the Kosovar refugees tell of the horrors that they were subjected to and witnessed brought back too many bad memories to Elie Wiesel. I could see it in his face, a look I can still see today, the effect all this was having on him. And in a low voice what he conveyed to me was his fear that this terror the refugees experienced was just going to carry on, was going to engender hatred and a desire for revenge, and the adults and the children playing their games were going to return to Kosovo with a desire to inflict on the Serbs what the Serbs had inflicted on them. It was this fear for the future that concerned him the most.
He writes in his report, “What I saw and heard there was often unbearable to the survivor that still lives in my memory. In fact, I never thought that I would hear such tales of cruelty again.”
His fear was that the victims would become the victimizers, seeking to wreak back onto the Serbs what their Serb neighbors had done to them. Toward the end of his report Wiesel expresses his concern for the future: “Their bitterness, indeed their hatred for [Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic] and his subordinates, will not fade away.”
When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him “a messenger to mankind.” But at the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, it is Wiesel’s words that are carved in stone: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
Other words spoken by Wiesel must give us pause for thought, though. Lamenting that his father had no grave at which he might grieve, he said, “”What can I tell him? That the world has learned? I am not so sure.”
In June 1999 and afterward, Elie Wiesel bore witness to the suffering and cruelty brought down on the Kosovar Albanians, and I think it added to his uncertainty that the world had changed since the Holocaust. But for me, a lowly embassy control officer, I will never forget his presence or his concern. In those couple of days, my life was truly touched by him.
Read Elie Wiesel’s full report to President Clinton here.
Photo by Remy Steinegger, World Economic Forum. Used with permission.
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