Elie Wiesel

Would you like to talk to some of the best thinkers in America? Ask them about the country's future, its problems, and goals? About what's happening in our fast-changing world?

Today the Monitor launches a monthly series that will tap the wisdom and experience of some of the best thinkers and doers in America. You will hear from leaders in the worlds of literature and science, entertainment and sports, religion and the arts, politics, education, and the military.

They come from across America, though some are naturalized citizens from as far away as Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Monitor asked them to talk about what's needed to make ours a better world. In the months ahead, we'll talk with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the Metropolitan Opera's James Levine, Columbia University's Edward Said, and physicist Leon Lederman, among others.

In today's inaugural conversation, Monitor staff writer David Holmstrom talks with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel. A Holocaust survivor whose family was killed by the Nazis, Mr. Wiesel has devoted his life to healing the wounds of hatred.

High above the honks and sirens of New York streets, Elie Wiesel leans back and speaks quietly from the comfort of his library couch. "What makes me unhappy is simple," he says softly, dark eyes brooding. "Civilization today has not absorbed the lessons from the past."

With disheveled hair and bushy eyebrows splayed out in all directions, he sits and shares his concerns over massacres in Bosnia, revenge in the Middle East, the slaughters in Africa, and churches burning in the United States. And hatred.

"What is there in hatred to appeal to people?" he asks, with the impatience of a man who has seen how systematic persecution and hatred can destroy. "I don't understand it," he says. "It is always grotesque. Hatred distorts everything. There is no beauty when there is hatred; there is no truth when there is hatred. Don't they know that?"

The uncomfortable answer, as Mr. Wiesel knows, is yes, "they" do not know that yet. As we approach the year 2000, hostility and revenge continue to grip many nations and cultures. Violence and fear is all too common in American society.

As a Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps in World War II, Wiesel has written many autobiographical novels since then - on spiritual and moral conflicts - and his pleas for sanity and reason in international affairs, have lifted him to a position of almost singular moral authority in political and cultural arenas in the world.

In l986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, his son and wife standing nearby at the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway. The Nobel Committee cited him as "one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age characterized by violence, repression, and racism."

He is now so central to the Holocaust that some critics, such as Cambridge University Press author Kali Tal, charge that Wiesel has become "a professional Holocaust survivor who thinks survivor witnesses are the only ones who really know about the experiences."

Certainly Wiesel has become the best-known voice of the Holocaust, and also a soft growl on behalf of all Jewish survivors who grieve for the millions who perished. "Always zachor [remember]," he says.

Hardly shy, Wiesel accepts criticism as inevitable. He draws the line, though, at the anti-Semitic letters he receives, and asks before an interview that his home location not be made public.

Despite his fame and the horrors he has known, he remains a warm, plaintive, attentive man working within a simple lifestyle. No fashionable wardrobe, no business cards; no beepers; no alcohol; a simple watch is on his wrist. He has no collection of favorite objects or celebrated art in his library jammed with books.

"My favorite object is a pen," he says, smiling and holding one in the air. "For each book I buy a new pen and start writing, and I keep all the pens." He says that the reason he does not wear gold, or own it, is the memory of seeing mountains of gold at Auschwitz that was forcibly taken from the Jews.

It is the tenacity of evil, "the Kingdom of Night" as Mr. Wiesel describes it, that he has passionately worked against for the last three decades.

He has won more than a dozen literary awards in several countries, counseled the leaders of many nations (flying with President Clinton to Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in Israel), and been involved with innumerable projects and causes on behalf of the Holocaust and survivors. Since 1976 he has also been the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University.

With his Nobel Peace Prize money, Wiesel launched the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, with many programs and conferences emphasizing efforts to bring youths of the world together.

Ms. Tal, author of "Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma," challenges Wiesel for presenting former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger with the Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award in 1991, presented to Holocaust survivors.

"It was not appropriate for Kissinger," says Tal, "because he and his immediate family left Germany in l938." In addition, Tal says Wiesel was highly critical of the bombing of Cambodia, a military action during the Vietnam War approved by Mr. Kissinger.

Never a Nazi-hunter seeking personal accountability, Wiesel's philosophic nature continues to embrace the better possibilities of humanity, and God.

Because he has seen so much death, Wiesel wrestles to understand today's contemporary violence, and the issues of life and death raised by Jack Kevorkian, for instance, the Michigan doctor who has assisted some 46 people in their suicides.

Asked if he approves of Dr. Kevorkian's methods, and whether the state has a right to prosecute him, Wiesel answers with a nod to the complex legal nuances involved. He explains his need to think more deeply about a state's legal authority in such cases, but on a personal level Wiesel could not help cause death.

"My instinctive feeling is no," he says. "I don't see myself helping death. But he [Kevorkian] would say, 'But these people want to die. They suffer so much, and why do you want them to suffer?' It's a very good question, and I don't think I have an answer for it," he says. "But at the same time I know that something in me tells me that one must not be a servant of death. I am not condemning the doctor because who am I to judge or condemn?"

And yet, as a survivor who now serves life, Wiesel knows that memories of terrible events can vanish in comfort, and be sanitized in history. Thus his unflagging action on behalf of human rights is a consequence of his experience. Forgetting the meaning of the Holocaust to him is to "kill twice," he says.

"We must always take sides," he told the audience in Oslo when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

When war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina and starvation in concentration camps was reported in the press, Wiesel was horrified. "If this is Auschwitz again, we must mobilize the whole world," he says of his reaction.

He went there and met with the warring leaders including Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs. "He tried to convince me that the others were guilty, not him," he says. "And when I asked him why he destroyed a library in Sarajevo, he gave me a lesson in [weaponry] and how it was impossible for him to destroy the library, yet it was so clear to the see the impact of the missiles on the library."

Wiesel is unequivocal in assessing Mr. Karadzic. "He is crazy, literally crazy," he says "He must be brought to justice."

It was in silence that the devout 15-year-old Wiesel, his family and the entire village of Sighet in Romania, were herded into cattle cars by the German Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz in 1944.

Wiesel wrote about this searing experience in "Night," a slim, unforgettable book first published in 1960, and now into its 25th edition.

Literary critic Alfred Kazin was rough on Wiesel, suggesting in a review of "Night" that parts of it may have been embellished. Wiesel told Bill Marx, a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, that Kazin "is a man who has the arrogance to doubt the words of the victims. He has committed a mortal sin in the historical sense."

At Auschwitz, Wiesel says the number A-7713 was tattooed on left arm. His mother and younger sister died in the gas chambers there, and eventually Wiesel and his father, Shlomo, a former shopkeeper, were taken to Buna together, then to Buchenwald.

Shlomo died from starvation and freezing temperatures at night, one of thousands who perished as the sum of brutality overwhelmed them. Wiesel survived, saying he was by then "too numb to weep" over his father's death. Five weeks later he saw American tanks arrive at Buchenwald's front gate, the beginning of liberation.

After his physical recovery, Wiesel became a student in Paris and later a journalist for Jewish newspapers. His passion for learning was almost insatiable. "From morning to evening, learning, learning," he says, "and I became terribly religious again."

Slowly he realized that as a survivor of the Holocaust, the issues of forgiveness, power, and the nature of God would forever have extraordinary meaning to him. And he would not always find answers to the crisis of faith he had known. "I only have questions," he says often, meaning that questions can be shared but answers are individual.

In the camps, Wiesel says, the God of his youth was destroyed. Instead of a loving, omnipotent God, Wiesel found a God of cruelty or indifference. "What had I to thank him for?" he asks in "Night" as the Nazi barbarity increased and so many died around him.

Today Wiesel still sees God as the great puzzle. "But I do it from inside faith," he says. "If I have no faith, there is no problem with God. Why should I call him God if he doesn't exist? Because God exists I have problems with God . . . But in our tradition, it's certainly possible, it's also commendable, to argue with God. Read the Bible; it's an argument with God."

Does he forgive those who tried to decimate the Jewish culture?

"If somebody came to me saying, 'I was in the camps, and I hit you,' and then says, 'Forgive me,' I can [forgive] if I want to," he explains. "But how can I forgive things that were done to others? I have never condemned the German people. I don't believe in collective guilt. The German nation has never asked the Jewish nation to forgive them. Never."

Wiesel, for years a stateless person, became a US citizen in 1961. "We are the great power now," he says, "and power is not great because it has better armies or more money. Power is great because of moral strength, and [a] moral message, and that is still what we have to live."

Elie Wiesel ...

On technological changes ...

'I am suspicious because it is going so fast. Where? We live in strange times . . . Some people go to a spa and pay $300 a day for not eating. What kind of a society is this? People don't read books anymore. They open television [or] the Internet. What about the feeling of a book? You read a book with your fingers, not just your eyes.'

On drug use ...

'Somehow we have managed not to give our students, our children - who run after drugs - the beauty and excitement of dreams. They don't dream. In order to dream they do drugs. If we, their elders, could give them dreams, they wouldn't need drugs.'

On the presidential character ...

'I don't like to interfere in political campaigns. As for character, nobody is a saint.. The Talmud has a marvelous saying that no one should be named to a position of leadership in a community unless he has something to be reproached for . . . At the same time we ask from our leaders a certain degree of honesty, decency. If they make mistakes they should simply say, 'Look, we are human.' [A leader should say] I made a mistake, sorry, I made a mistake.'

On the Middle East ...

'I am not as pessimistic as those I read in the newspapers. I think the peace process is irreversible. It is a matter of style now because [Benjamin] Netanyahu is prime minister and he has to restore himself and his own position. But the process cannot go back. Once the Palestinians and Israelis met as human beings, and they were no longer just masks but faces, and they heard each other and smiled at each other, [Netanyahu's position] was finished.'

On Louis Farrakhan ...

'He is no help. What he said about Christians, Catholics and Jews doesn't help. He appeals to the wrong pride in [blacks]. Yes, he should appeal to their pride. He should make them proud, but he uses the wrong vehicle: hatred.'

Excerpt from interview

The Force Of Media Images on Today's Youth

'MY favorite expression in all my books is, 'and yet,' "says, Elie Wiesel, eyes suddenly twinkling. "I have all the reason in the world to be angry, and yet I control that anger. I have all the reason in the world to mistrust others.... People are here, I believe, to justify God's faith in his creation, and they do that by having faith in each other."

Alarmed by the growing violence among American youth today, Wiesel shakes his head and cites the power of "images" on television, in advertising and movies as contributing factors..

"Surely it is the fault of adults," he says. "It is never the fault of children. We created an [environment] where language is no longer important, and when language fails, violence sets in as a language. It's always the most direct language, but the stupidest of all. And once you go back to images, [they] become a kind of idolatry."

To help change this Wiesel suggests that the "genius of movie-makers today" should be redirected. "For one hour a week or something they should invest the same genius," he says, "to bring about the best rather than the worst in human beings, just for the thing itself, just for the children they used to be."

Elie Wiesel Chronology

* Born Sept. 30, 1928 in the Jewish village of Sighet in northern Transylvania. Father was a shopkeeper.

* Family deported by Nazis to Auschwitz in Poland in 1944. Mother and younger sister die in gas chambers.

* Wiesel and father sent to Buchenwald in 1945. Father dies of starvation.

* Buchenwald liberated by US Army on April 11, 1945.

* An orphan, Wiesel is sent to Paris, studies literature and philosophy at Sorbonne from 1948 to 1951. Writes for newspapers. Travels to Israel

* Becomes Paris correspondent for Tel Aviv daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronot in 1952.

* Covering United Nations in 1956, is struck by taxicab. Confined to wheelchair for a year.

* Breaks his self-imposed silence about Holocaust and publishes "Night," in 1958. International bestseller.

* Over the next 30 years writes 33 novels, plays, commentaries. Wins many international writing awards, travels, and becomes increasingly known for his views on survival and the Holocaust.

* Becomes US citizen in l963.

* Marries Marion Erster Rose in l969. One son, Elisha.

* Awarded Nobel Peace Prize in l986.

* With Nobel award money, establishes The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity in 1986 to "create forums for the discussion of urgent ethical and moral issues confronting mankind."

* Humanities professor at Boston University since l976. Receives 75 honorary degrees from institutes of higher learning.

* "Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea," published 1995.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.