Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor who became an eloquent witness for the 6 million Jews slaughtered in World War II and who, more than anyone, seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.
Wiesel was author of many books, including “Night,” a harrowing memoir of his time in the Nazi death camp that is still read by high school students all over America. In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
And in 1997, Wiesel began a relationship with Charlotte when he made his first of three visits to the city, speaking to students and others and helping to birth the Echo Foundation – a group dedicated to launching projects that echoed Wiesel’s tireless message to guard against indifference in a still-suffering world.
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Wiesel returned to Charlotte in 2007 and 2010, each time challenging and inspiring everyone he met – young people, educators, clergy, community leaders, journalists and others – to do more to stop suffering and to never be silent in the face of injustice and intolerance anywhere in the world.
Wiesel also touched Charlotte in a special way through the work of the Echo Foundation. The group was started after Wiesel’s first visit in 1997. Stephanie Ansaldo, then a family therapist at Charlotte Latin School, persuaded him to come by quoting from one of his books.
Wiesel and the Echo Foundation, led since the beginning by Ansaldo, always made it a point of reaching out to the young people of Charlotte, a new generation that the Nobel laureate hoped would help shape a more compassionate world.
“We cannot do many things, but we can do small things,” Wiesel told 900 students packed into the Charlotte Latin School auditorium in March 1997. “Teach one person. Write one letter to one prisoner. Send a gift to a child.”
“I’ve become an advocate of small miracles,” he told them. “Small gestures.”
In 2007, he spoke to clergy during a luncheon at Duke Mansion, to students from all over the city at Myers Park High School and to a rapt audience at uptown’s Belk Theatre.
That year, the Echo Foundation sent 12 Mecklenburg County students to Europe to trace Wiesel’s life, from Romania to Auschwitz to France.
Wiesel came back to Charlotte in 2010, partly for the premiere of “In the Footsteps of Elie Wiesel,” a documentary about the students’ journey.
Just this year, Ansaldo and 10 students traveled to war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Echo Foundation’s annual “Voices Against Indifference” program.
“I think he helped the Charlotte community embrace and act on our highest ideals,” Ansaldo, who was in frequent contact with Wiesel over the years, said Saturday. “Through his inspiration, every step we took at Echo was toward doing our best and toward infusing in the next generation the goal to create a better world for all people, to never look the other way when we saw injustice, and to not be indifferent to suffering wherever it exists.”
Rabbi Judy Schindler, formerly of Temple Beth El, who was among the Charlotte clergy who met with Wiesel in 2007, said Saturday she was “deeply inspired” by what he said that day.
“He told us that our role as clergy was to ‘use our words to make a difference,’ ” Schindler said. “And I’ve always tried my best to fulfill his advice to speak out against injustice and inspire our community to act.”
Hoping to promote Holocaust education and human rights – the very causes of Wiesel’s life – Schindler will head a new center for peace and social justice at Queens University of Charlotte.
Ansaldo said Wiesel also changed her life – and those of many others in Charlotte, including students who learned and traveled and met Wiesel through the Echo Foundation.
“I was minding my own business, being a family therapist at Charlotte Latin School,” she said. “Then he arrived (in Charlotte) – yes, at my invitation. But I had no idea the challenge he would leave behind – for me and for all of us.”
During his 2007 trip, Wiesel used words that could serve as his parting message to those now mourning his passing.
Kristen, a student from South Mecklenburg High School, asked Wiesel for advice on how to deal with the heartbreak of losing her grandfather.
“Remember him,” Wiesel, then a wispy-haired, soft-spoken man of 78, told her. “Remember his stories, remember his smile. And help those who suffer now, people you don’t know. By helping them overcome their suffering, you will overcome your own.”
The New York Times contributed