Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Elie Wiesel
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Elie Wiesel, author of "Night," the haunting account of his survival in Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Buna, is a tireless messenger of what happens when the world does nothing. Born a Jew in Romania, his family was swept up in the Nazis' Final Solution. His father, mother and younger sister all died in the concentration camp. After the war, he lived in France and worked as a journalist, eventually becoming an American citizen. He has won the Nobel Peace Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom. The 83-year-old's latest work of fiction, "Hostage," about a Jewish man who is randomly abducted by terrorists off the street in New York City, revisits the themes of helplessness and humiliation in the face of evil, countered ultimately by hope. He is an Andrew Mellon professor of Humanities at Boston University. He and his wife lost their life savings to Bernie Madoff, and The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity was nearly wiped out. Most recently, he spoke out against the Mormon practice of the posthumously baptizing Jews.
In "Night," one of the first characters we meet is Moshe the Beadle, who after being taken by the Nazis escapes, returns and tries to warn the residents of your village to flee before the Nazis return. No one listens. Does your life's work ever feel like that?
[Sighing] Often. Often. I will give you an example: A few years ago I was invited to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. I titled my lecture "Will the World Ever Learn?" I came out with a very pessimistic conclusion and answer -- No, it will not learn, because it hasn't learned. Otherwise there would be no Rwanda and Cambodia, and children wouldn't die of hunger. It's terrible. Does it mean that we live like in the 1930s? No. Today, the democracies are powerful, and people's sensitivities are awakened. But still I worry. All the time I worry I have not done enough.
Because of what you have chosen to do, does it ever feel as if you are a prisoner of the past?
Well, not the prisoner of the past, maybe a hostage of the past. No, not really, no. I think simply I am linked to the past. I don't live in the past but the past lives in me and in you, Patricia. The past doesn't go away.
Now at the same time, what does it mean? That there are moments -- life is not made of years but of moments -- and good moments, somehow, as a teacher when I'm in class. I never repeat a course and I have great students, which I choose. In the right corner there is a beautiful student and there is a flicker in her eye. She understood. That is for me, of course, the great reward.
Occasionally people write me letters and say what my work has done. It helps. The good thing about the Nobel Prize is that you have access. So I had access to many American presidents, beginning with Carter. That means I can speak to them when they are willing to receive me and they want to meet me. Occasionally, I have the feeling they listen. The present president, Obama, I had three lunches with him. He invited me, and I came to the conclusion that he is a very great listener.
How about action?
That's a different story [laughing]. I don't involve myself in politics.
Have you ever encountered a former Nazi who said, "I'm sorry"?
No, no, never. On the other hand, I had a good moment, a very good moment. I was invited to address the German parliament in Berlin. I think it was the first session they had in Berlin. It was, I think, at the beginning of the millennium maybe. I spoke about the importance of memory and -- openly, without insulting anyone, but still openly -- what I expect, what I hope and so forth. At the end, I turned to the president. I said:
"President, postwar Germany has done great things. First it became a democracy, a great democracy. Second, it helped my people and many survivors of the Holocaust receive reparations from Germany, and Germany helped Israel. You've done great things, good things, but one thing you haven't done. You have never asked the Jewish people for forgiveness. Why haven't you?"
You can imagine the silence in that hall. Somehow, a week later, the same president took a plane, went to Jerusalem and to the Israeli parliament and officially asked the Jewish people for forgiveness. Then I felt sometimes words do carry a certain weight.
Do you think things happen for a reason? You have had a lot of unreasonable things happen to you.
There must be a reason, but I don't know it. God, God alone knows. The reason for the Second World War, it could have been prevented. That is the great disappointment one has when one studies history. The Second World War, with its 60 million victims and 6 million Jews, of course, could have been prevented. So easily.
In the age of the Internet, where information travels so fast, do you think murder on the scale of the Holocaust would be impossible?
Yes, on that scale, but at the same time we have Syria for the last 16 or 18 months, killing every single day hundreds of its citizens. The Internet exists, everybody knows. Does it stop?
When you were liberated from the concentration camp, what was the adjustment to life like?
The adjustment was difficult. After the war I wrote two memoirs, two books, "All the Rivers Run to the Sea" and "The Sea is Never Full."
The first adjustment was not to life but to death. In the camp, death was the norm. You would see people die without shedding a tear. Strangely enough, people didn't cry during those years because once you cry you never stop.
We cried when we were liberated. But nevertheless to see a funeral [after the war] and be touched by it, you had to adjust to it. When somebody died, it's not the norm.
I didn't survive because I adjusted. I didn't adjust. I was always timid. I remained timid all my life. I did not volunteer. I never raised my hand, nothing. In the beginning, simply, I lived because my father was alive. I knew if I died, he would die. As long as he lived, I had to live. After he died, there was a few months between his death and the liberation, my life was not really alive. In "Night," there are a few pages between Jan. 27, the death of my father, and April 11, which was liberation day. Very few pages because I wasn't really alive.
Does the terror of those days invade your sleep?
Oh, it comes back a lot in our dreams. I speak to my friends who were with me at the camps, and they all agree somehow they come back in our dreams -- disguised occasionally, distorted, but they come back.
Do you ever get tired of trying to wake up the world? It must seem to you that the reaction time to tragedies such as Darfur, the Sudan, Syria, etc., is so labored and slow.
Yeah, but I don't think I have the right not to continue. Sometimes, of course, I'm close to despair, but despair is not an option.
So how does writing a book like "Hostage," which has many of the underlying themes of your other works, help you?
I'm a writer. I have written, I think, 60 books and each time I feel it's still not what I want to say because what I really want to say cannot be said. But what else can I do except try to wake up?
I'll tell you, Patricia, in "Hostage" I wrote it as a protest against terrorism. The whole book is against that, it is simply to denounce terrorism. This book is set in '75, but after that terrorism became even worse. It became suicide terrorism. A suicide terrorist is a killer and he kills himself, not because he wants to die, simply because he wants to kill more people. If that continues, my God, we really are in trouble.
Two or three years ago I organized a summit meeting co-sponsored with the journalists of Norway, and the title was "Fighting Terrorism for Humanity." I asked the questions "What would you do? What can you do? What should you do to defeat this death threat?"
No one knows. No one answered. They don't know. Someone said, "If somebody wants to die, what can you do?" I then came up with the only idea I had which is to declare a suicide terrorist as a criminal against humanity. It may not stop him, but it will stop the accomplices. The worst crime is a crime against humanity. There is no statute of limitations. This is why I wrote the book.
Speaking of that, do you think justice was done as far as Bernie Madoff?
Oh, I don't think of him, really. Look, the man is a crook. He was a good friend of a good friend of ours. That is how we met. I met him twice at dinners. It was nothing. What can we do? It's true, all of a sudden we lost everything, both for the foundation and personal. My wife and I looked at each other, and what we said, really, is "We have seen worse."
So at the end of the day, do you view the future with more fear or hope?
Both, really, both. Both fear and hope, and the stronger the fear, the stronger the hope.
First Published September 17, 2012 12:00 am