Washington National Cathedral is home to hundreds of sculptures, from likenesses of saints to a stone carving of Star Wars villain Darth Vader to busts of prominent Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King Jr.
This month, reports Ashraf Khalil for the Associated Press (AP), a new figure joined these ranks: Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor whose tireless efforts to document injustice earned him the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. Per Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Wiesel, who is best known for Night, his autobiographical account of surviving two Nazi concentration camps, is the first modern Jewish person—biblical figures notwithstanding—to be honored with a bust in the Washington, D.C. house of worship.
“The cathedral is a 20th-century cathedral, with lots of room left on purpose so we can keep lifting up those who we think live into the highest ideals of what we think it means to be a Christian, or a person of great morality and ethics,” Reverend Randy Hollerith, the cathedral’s dean, tells the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein. “We think he is an example to the whole country of resilience, someone who dedicated his life to the highest aspirations of what it means to be a human.”
Wiesel’s bust stands in a corner of the church’s Human Rights Porch, which honors “individuals who have taken significant, profound, and life-changing actions in the fight for … social justice, civil rights, and the welfare of other human beings,” per a 2016 statement. Carvings of Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks and civil rights activist Jonathan Myrick Daniels occupy the alcove’s other corners.
As Hollerith tells the AP, cathedral leaders selected Wiesel to fill the final opening in recognition of his status as “the living embodiment of resilience in the face of hatred.” The writer and activist’s carving comes at a time of rising anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe; the fact that Holocaust survivors’ numbers are dwindling makes the choice all the more poignant, the dean adds. (Wiesel himself died in 2016 at the age of 87.)
According to a statement, stone carver Sean Callahan handcrafted the likeness, which will be dedicated in a ceremony this fall, after a model sculpted by artist Chas Fagan. Washingtonian’s Jane Recker reports that the carving process took just two months (twice as fast as previous projects), as the normally bustling space was closed to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though the cathedral is part of the Episcopalian Church, Hollerith is quick to point out that it’s more than a shrine to Christianity.
“It’s important for us that whenever people come into the cathedral, that they see not only in the iconography reflected, you know, saints and other parts of the Christian faith, but they also see folks throughout the 20th century who stand as examples in our country,” he tells the JTA.
Born in Romania in 1928, Wiesel was a teenager when he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944. Per the Jewish Virtual Library, he endured a year of brutal beatings, forced labor and starvation before his liberation at Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany, in April 1945. Of his immediate family of six, only he and his two older sisters survived.
Wiesel spent the decade following the war working as a journalist in France. He refused to discuss his wartime experiences until the early 1950s, when he penned Night, a searing account that chronicles both life in the camps and his ensuing crisis of faith. In 1956, Wiesel moved to the U.S., where he resided for the rest of his life.
“[B]y the sheer force of his personality and his gift for the haunting phrase,” noted the New York Times’ Joseph Berger in Wiesel’s 2016 obituary, “[he] gradually exhumed the Holocaust from the burial ground of the history books.”
During his lifetime, Wiesel wrote more than 40 books, the majority of which touched on the Holocaust, Judaism or questions of morality. He helped establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and spoke out against human suffering wherever it occurred, even establishing a foundation dedicated to combating injustice.
“If I survived, it must be for some reason: I must do something with my life,” Wiesel once said. “It is too serious to play games with anymore because in my place someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot. The war, my experience, transcends language—it is impossible to transmit.”
Speaking with the Post, cathedral spokesperson Kevin Eckstrom says, “Look at what [Wiesel] stood for; it crosses all religious traditions. That no one can be indifferent to suffering, to threats of violence, of genocide, that there is a universal human mandate to always be on guard against indifference to the suffering of others.”