“WHAT I WANT, WHAT I HAVE HOPED FOR ALL MY LIFE, IS THAT MY PAST SHOULD NOT BECOME YOUR CHILDREN’S FUTURE”
Elie Wiesel was brought up in a closely knit Jewish community in Sighet, Transylvania (Romania). When he was fifteen years old, his family was herded aboard a train and deported by Nazis to the Auschwitz death camp. Wiesel’s mother and younger sister died at Auschwitz-two older sisters survived. Wiesel and his father were then taken to Buchenwald, where his father also perished. In his autobiography, Wiesel writes: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreathes of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.” Wiesel has devoted his life to ensuring that the world does not forget the atrocities of the Nazis, and that they are not repeated. After the war, Wiesel became a journalist in Paris, ending his silence about his experiences during the Holocaust with the publication of Night in 1958. Translated into twenty-five languages, with millions of copies in print around the world, Night was a searing account of the Nazi death camps. Wiesel has written over forty books, and won numerous awards for his writing and advocacy. He served as the chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and was the founding chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Liberty Award, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Wiesel teaches at Boston University and travels the globe advocating for human rights and the discussion of ethical issues.
KK Why don’t you give in to futility, the sense that there’s nothing one person can do in the face of the world’s ills? What keeps you going?
DR. WIESEL When you think of the other you realize that something must be done. If I think of myself, I probably wouldn’t have done many of these things. But what else can they do to me that they haven’t done already? I think of the children today who need our voices, possibly our presence, possibly all our help, but at least our emotions. I think of the minorities-social minorities, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, or health minorities, the victims of AIDS or the victims of Alzheimer’s. Then you have no right to say: “Since I cannot do anything. I shouldn’t do anything.” Camus said in one of his essays (and it’s a marvelous thing), that one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Well, I don’t imagine Sisyphus was happy, but I imagine the other is unhappy. And because the other is unhappy, I have no right not to diminish his or her unhappiness.
KK How did you, as a child, survive after your father died?
DR. WIESEL A few months after his death came the liberation. In those months, I could have died any day, any moment. There was no will to live. And even if I were to say today I wanted to live to testify, it wouldn’t be true.
KK Do you believe God gave you a special gift to bear witness to the atrocities, or was your survival arbitrary?
DR. WIESEL It was arbitrary. I don’t want to call it a miracle because it would mean that God performed a miracle for me alone. It means he could have performed more miracles for others who were worthier than I, probably, or at least not worse than I. I don’t think so. It was sheer luck. I happened to be there, and there were people standing ahead of me. And just as they left, the gate closed. Every single day I was there and at the last moment, the quota was filled. If I had been five rows ahead, I wouldn’t be here.
KK Do you think there’s a Divine plan?
DR. WIESEL No, I don’t believe it. I don’t know how to react to that. I don’t accept it. I go on questioning God all my life.
KK Could you talk about the relationship between courage and love in your experience? From where do you derive your sense of hope?
DR. WIESEL It’s very simple. Only another person can give me hope, because only another person can take hope away from me. It’s not God. It’s a person, a human being. Ultimately all this, our relationship with others affects our own destiny, and surely our own moral attitude and destiny (call it love, call it friendship, call it conviction), is related to the other. Whatever it means, this relationship with someone else doesn’t mean my relationship with God. All the laws, morality, are about human relations. In my tradition, my life, there was no animosity, no resentment, no fear in my family. It was a source of strength, of faith, with both my mother and father. Maybe I was too young when I left them.
DR. WIESEL Yes. Maybe if I had lived longer with them I would have developed the same problems that children today have with their parents. I don’t know. Maybe.
KK How about your own son?
DR. WIESEL He is the center of my life. The center of my center. He’s now twenty-six. I am a crazy father. But he doesn’t like me to speak about him.
KK You wrote that you were inspired by the Jews’ courage and determination to remain committed to their faith, even in the face of evil and absolute powerlessness against it. Talk about your sympathy for the powerless.
DR. WIESEL The powerless, for me, are the most important, the weak and small. For me, that’s why in every book of mine, in every novel, there’s always a child, always an old man, always a madman. Because they are so neglected by the government and by society. So I give them a shelter. And therefore in my childhood, I liked these Jewish people-and do to this day. Years and years ago, I used to go and spend the whole afternoon with old Yiddish writers, whom nobody read because they were marginalized, to make them feel that somebody reads them.
KK It’s important to reach out to people who are marginalized-
DR. WIESEL Yes, to those who feel nothing is worth it, who feel that one is forgotten. And in fact, with human rights abuse, with prisoners, nothing is worse for a prisoner than to feel that he or she is forgotten. Usually the tormentor, the torturer uses that argument to break the prisoner, saying, you know, nobody cares. Nobody cares. This is why, for instance, at a conference in Washington on the looted artwork and monies, I asked, “Why so late? Why the pressure now?” The main thing is we forget that most of the victims were not rich. The enemy stole our poverty and nobody speaks about it. They speak only about the fortunes and the galleries of those who were rich. But what about the poverty of the poor? At times, when I speak, people listen, but they don’t hear.
I owe something to these people who were left behind. We who are so life-oriented, who celebrate youth, who celebrate strength-it’s enough to see the commercials on television of only beautiful girls, healthy young men to know that somehow it is a kind of rejection of those who are not young, who are not healthy, who are not rich. Therefore I feel I owe them something. That’s also why I write. That’s what I write. I’ve written more than forty books, but very few deal with the war. Why is that? Because I believe in sharing. I learn so I have to share that learning. I have a great passion for learning and for teaching. So many of my books are about learning-from the Bible, from the prophets, from mysticism.
KK How do people become cruel, talk about hate?
DR. WIESEL At least we are in a situation where we realize the consequences. What a hater doesn’t understand is that in hating one group, actually he or she hates all groups. Hate is contagious, like a cancer. It goes from one cell to another, one root to another, one person to another, one group to another. If it’s not stopped, it can invade the whole country, the whole world. A hater doesn’t understand, therefore, that actually, in destroying others, he then destroys himself. Show the outcome, show the ugliness. There is no glory in killing people, and there’s no glory in degrading people. There is no glory in persecuting. That’s a very important lesson.
KK One taught over and over again. Is there a point in repeating it?
DR. WIESEL I know what you’re saying. Of course there is. But to come back to what I said earlier, I know I don’t manage to persuade people to change, but I do it anyway. A story: A just man decided he must save humanity. So he chose a city, the most sinful of all cities. Let’s say it is Sodom. So he studied. He learned all the art of moving people, changing minds, changing hearts. He came to a man and woman and said, “Don’t forget that murder is not good, it is wrong.” In the beginning, people gathered around him. It was so strange, somewhat like a circus. They gathered and they listened. He went on and on and on. Days passed. Weeks passed. They stopped listening. After many years, a child stopped him and said, “What are you doing? Don’t you see nobody is listening? Then why do you continue shouting and shouting? Why?” And the man answered the child, “I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, I was convinced that if I were to shout loud enough, they would change. Now I know they won’t change. But if I shout even louder, it’s because I don’t want them to change me.”
KK After all that shouting, do you think you have made a difference?
DR. WIESEL Here and there, maybe. I get letters, at least a hundred a month from children who read my books. I answer every one of them. My first book came out forty-two years ago. I know that some are moved. I know they are.
KK Is it possible to have courage, the determination to make a difference in other people’s lives, without suffering yourself?
DR. WIESEL Of course, by studying the suffering of others. And you can do it in an elegant way, a discrete way. If a person suffers, you cannot reduce his or her suffering, but one thing you can attain is that the suffering should not become a source of human nature.
KK What does courage mean to you?
DR. WIESEL You know, for me, courage is the way you define it. I don’t even make U-turns. I remain a refugee at heart. I’m afraid of the police. So if I do run into them, I stop and move away. I let my wife handle it. I’m afraid of uniforms. Generals frighten me. It wasn’t courageous for me to tell Ronald Reagan not to go to Bitburg, it was just natural. For me, prophets were courageous because they had no constituents, nobody protected them.
KK Wasn’t there one very powerful guy watching out for them?
DR. WIESEL Prove it. Do you have a paper identity card, saying, I, the God of the universe, appointed you? It’s only the prophet who said, “God sent me.”
Go and prove it. And nevertheless, because of the personality, because of the words, he spoke through God. And that is courage to speak the truth. Power may be that of a president or a king. Power may be a destroyer of the individual. And power may be something you must address with courage, which is the truth. The problem is how do you find it? . . . What I want, what I’ve hoped for all my life, is that my past should not become your children’s future.