Elie Wiesel: Quietly moving worlds

Wiesel will celebrate his 86th birthday on Simhat Torah and so I believe this is the perfect opportunity to hear from him and to talk about his writing.

Elie Wiesel with Joel Rappel. (photo credit: DORIT ROM-RAPPEL)
Elie Wiesel with Joel Rappel.
(photo credit: DORIT ROM-RAPPEL)
Elie Wiesel is currently the most well-known Jew in the world. Every year he is chosen as one of the most influential individuals in American society. He is one of the few people who expresses in the most clear and decisive way possible the moral, cultural and Jewish values according to which cultured people should live their lives.
Wiesel represents the Jewish way of thinking and living at its best.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee that granted Wiesel the award in 1986 wrote the following about him: “Wiesel is a messenger for mankind; his message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity.” He has won hundreds of awards and honors for his literary works and public activity. Wiesel has been invited to the White House by a string of US presidents and remains in close and continuous contact with heads of state around the world – with Israel at the top of the list.
Over the years, Wiesel has written 57 books.
He has received 138 honorary doctorates, and 100 research papers have been written about his works. He served as Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Boston University from 1976 until last year and is a fascinating conversationalist. He never raises his calm voice and always speaks respectfully.
The ideas he raises during conversations are always intellectually stimulating and broaden people’s horizons.
Wiesel will celebrate his 86th birthday on Simhat Torah (he was born on September 30, 1928) and so I believe this is the perfect opportunity to hear from him and to talk about his writing. My conversation with him has been ongoing for many years now, but this time I would like to focus on the treasures that can be found among the million documents that make up the future Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, which is scheduled to open in April 2015 at Boston University.
Anti-Semitism – Then and Now “Once I thought that anti-Semitism had disappeared. Today it’s clear to me that it never will. It might get weaker, but it will continue to exist because there are many countries in which people are not embarrassed to be anti-Semitic. We must remember that without anti-Semitism, there never would have been an Auschwitz.”
Thus in one short sentence, Wiesel forms a connection between the two subjects that have kept him busy these many years: anti-Semitism and the Shoah. “I thought that by keeping alive the memory of the Shoah, people who espoused anti-Semitic feelings would feel embarrassed, but I was wrong. Anti-Semitism still exists in many countries. Apparently it’s no longer shameful to be anti-Semitic.”
Wiesel believes that the only way to save the world from another disaster is to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. In his article, “The Shoah, First or Last” he writes: “Remembering the Shoah might be the only hope of saving the entire world from the final punishment.”
On his great struggle on the subject of memory, Wiesel says, “I struggle so that the Shoah will not just be another incident in the history of the world, as Arthur Miller writes.”
There is no doubt that Wiesel spent his best years using his great intellectual capacity and talent for writing and giving speeches trying to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.
“What will happen when the last Holocaust survivor dies? The only way to overcome this is for those who have listened to the stories of survivors, to become witnesses themselves.”
This short sentence contains the entirety of Wiesel’s philosophy, which to a large extent dictated how he has invested his energy over the last fifty years.
The Shoah – Standing at Mount Sinai Wiesel is not a historian. He writes and speaks about the Shoah as someone who witnessed it firsthand, who was there himself.
Like in his autobiographical book, Night.
According to Wiesel, the Shoah was a dramatic turning point in the history of mankind in general, and of the Jewish people in particular. In his article, “A Jew lives through the Shoah,” he writes, “Some of us thought of the Shoah as a new Mount Sinai – a Mount Sinai of darkness which could contain cryptic messages. This school of thought, with which I align myself, attaches a dimension of mysticism to the Shoah that cannot be described by language or imagination.”
Wiesel’s point of view is far-reaching.
Mount Sinai is where the Jewish people received the Torah and where they first began to develop their Jewish identity. The Shoah was a new starting point both in time and with respect to the Jewish people’s spiritual identity. In Wiesel’s opinion, the Shoah was a seminal event that helps us understand people – and especially Jews.
He describes his own Jewish beliefs as “wounded faith.” Over the years, his approach towards Judaism has gone through a number of changes. He is very bothered by the disappearance of Jewish solidarity during the Shoah years. Why didn’t Jews throughout the world – especially in the US and in Israel – fight for their brethren even after they knew they were being gassed in the death camps? “In Washington, London and in Jerusalem, they knew already in 1942 what was going on. The American Jewish community made no effort to exercise its political or economic influence. It could have moved heaven and earth. In the Land of Israel, the heart and conscience of the Jewish people, the situation was no different and no action was taken until the end of 1944.”
Wiesel was born in a town called Sighet in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. In May 1944, he was sent with his family and all the other Jews in the city to Auschwitz. His mother and his younger sister were apparently murdered the very night they arrived at the extermination camp. When the camp at Auschwitz was shut down in January 1945, Wiesel and his father were sent out on the famous death march with the other prisoners to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where his father died.
In April 1945, the Americans liberated the camp and Wiesel was transported to France where he lived for the next 10 years.
In 1956, he moved to the US and worked as a correspondent for Yediot Aharonot. In 1963, Wiesel received US citizenship. From 1976, he began teaching at Boston University and in 1978, then-president Jimmy Carter nominated him to head the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. Wiesel held this position until 1986, and during these years he spearheaded the creation of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
Could the Holocaust happen again? According to Wiesel, the greatest danger is indifference. He concludes with a sentence that has become part and parcel of the global cultural canon: “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference; The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it is indifference; and the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”
The State of Israel Israel has no greater advocate than Elie Wiesel. He is willing to get up on any stage and defend the policies and actions of the Israeli government. Many people have criticized him for this, but he remains faithful to his views. I found the following words written on a paper I found in his archive: “I do not live in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem lives inside of me. I do not live in Israel, but I could not live without Israel.”
More than once, people have claimed that Wiesel defended Israel when it was deserving of criticism and condemnation. But he retorted, “I am not an Israeli citizen and I do not live there. As a result, I will never interfere in its internal affairs or criticize its actions.”
Wiesel’s ideological identification with Zionism is clear-cut: he no longer believes that he himself will make aliya. To those who attack and criticize him so harshly, he responds: “Every Jew must ask himself why he resides geographically distant from Israel. Although everyone surely has a good excuse, I confess that I don’t. I’m not ready to leave my position at Boston University and my apartment in New York and move to Israel. This is my problem and not someone else’s. And if people don’t like it, that’s too bad. It’s okay with me if they get angry... If I end up making aliya one day, it won’t be so that people will like me.”
Wiesel’s response to the question, “what was the highpoint of your work and activity?” was quite surprising. “Most of all, I would like to be remembered for my contribution in helping Soviet Jews be allowed to leave Russia and go to Israel and other countries. Between 1965 and 1990, not one day went by when I didn’t work on the Soviet Jewry cause.”
Archival documents show that Wiesel fought amazingly hard as an individual against the powerful Soviet government. He did not sit for a moment, but fought for them everywhere they were being tortured.
Once, as we sat together in an effort to create the archive, Wiesel asked me, “What impresses you the most about the archive?” I answered unhesitatingly, “It’s so impressive how much you’ve managed to write and do.”
And then he added, “I’ve only done a small amount of what I’d wanted to accomplish. There’s still so much more I want to do.”
Let us pray and hope for many more years of fruitful activity.
The author is founder and director of the Elie Wiesel Archive at Boston University.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.