Category: Historical Commentary

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Remembering Elie Wiesel

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.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

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Anniversaries of Justice and Injustice

Anniversaries of Justice and Injustice

Today is June 12 in this part of the world, and it is a day of major anniversaries, some of justice, some of injustice. All noteworthy in one way or another.

 

Pulse Remembrance Day

Most current, it is the first anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. To refresh any memories that need refreshing, 49 people were killed and another 58 people wounded by a Muslim fanatic gunman in the nightclub, largely frequented by gay patrons. It was an act of hate, the product of a twisted vision, undertaken by Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard. Mateen, who himself was shot dead by Orlando police responding to emergency calls for help from the nightclub, pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS (ISIL), and claimed in a 911 call prior to the attack that it was provoked by the killing of ISIS leader Abu Waheeb by a U.S.-led coalition airstrike the previous month.

Mateen was born in the U.S., lived in Fort Pierce on Florida’s east coast, and had a record of making threats against people’s lives, using racial slurs and expressing dislike of black people, Jews, Hispanics, and gays, and was accused of being physically abusive and “mentally unstable and mentally ill” by his first wife. There also is considerable evidence indicating Mateen himself was gay, and there were reports of him frequenting the Pulse nightclub on a number of occasions prior to his murderous attack.

Meanwhile, Mateen’s second wife and widow, Noor Salman, is currently under arrest and awaiting trial next March for aiding and abetting her husband’s actions, going so far as to accompany him the night before while he purchased five containers of ammunition for use in the attack.

There have been significant commemorations of the Pulse attack in Orlando and elsewhere, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott has proclaimed June 12 as Pulse Remembrance Day and ordered flags flown at half-staff in the state.

 

Tear Down This Wall”

It was also on this date, in 1987, that former President Ronald Reagan addressed those words to then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev during a speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. It took another two-plus years for the wall to open, and then to fall, but it was on this date 30 years ago today that Reagan issued the challenge to Gorbachev to bring down the barrier that split the German people and was an enduring symbol of Communist repression and injustice since its erection in 1961.

Less known about the call to tear down the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent end of East Germany and the reunification of Germany, is that other Western leaders, notably British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterand, opposed unification, fearing that it would adversely affect the balance of power that had contained German ascendancy since the end of World War II.

 

The End of Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the U.S.

On June 12, 1967 – 50 years ago today – the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Loving v. Virginia, ruled that anti-miscegenation laws that made interracial marriage illegal were unconstitutional. With that single decision, all remaining such laws, which still existed across the South and a couple of border states, were struck down.

The ironically named case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison, with the sentence suspended on the condition they leave the commonwealth, for violating Virginia’s law that prohibited such interracial marriage. The couple had been married in the District of Columbia, where there was no such prohibition, in 1958, but when they settled back in Virginia the police, acting on a tip, raided the couple’s home during the night, hoping to catch them having sex, also prohibited under Virginia law at the time.

In 1964, frustrated in not being able to visit their families in Virginia, the Lovings filed a legal action to challenge their ban from the state. The case worked its way through the Virginia court system, with each level upholding the law and the Lovings’ sentence, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. And on June 12, 1967, the court issued its landmark decision stating that laws such as Virginia’s violated both the due process and the equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

June 12 has become known as Loving Day, and the Loving case was cited as precedent a dozen times in the 2015 case of Obergefell v. Hodges in which the Supreme Court ruled that the states could not prohibit same-sex marriage.

 

The Beginning of Anne Frank’s Diary

It was on her 13th birthday, June 12, 1942 – 75 years ago today – that Anne Frank received the red, checkered autograph book she had picked out with her father the prior day as a birthday present. It was that book that became the first volume in her famous diary. She began writing in the book two days later, and she documented in it, in two subsequent volumes and on some loose pages, the two years and one month in which she, her sister, and her father and mother, along with the family of Anne’s father’s business partner, were kept concealed from the Gestapo and the Dutch police in the upper floors of an annex of her father’s Amsterdam factory.

The Frank and van Pels families were Jewish and subject to the Nazi sweep to exterminate the Jews. They remained secreted in the annex until being discovered and deported to Nazi concentration camps in August 1944. Anne died of typhus in 1945 at the age of 15 at the Bergen-Belsen camp, anywhere from weeks to months – the exact date of her death is unknown – before the camp was liberated by British troops. Her memory and words endure through her diary, which came to be known as The Diary of a Young Girl.

 

And in Brazil . . .

June 12 is Dia dos Namorados – Lovers Day – in Brazil, since it falls on the eve of the anniversary of the death of St. Anthony of Padua, known for blessing couples with happy and prosperous marriages. Since Valentine’s Day falls in February and is so close to Carnaval, it’s not celebrated in Brazil. Instead, Dia dos Namorados is the Brazilian equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

June 12, a momentous day indeed, this June 12 even more so.

 

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