Taking Life: Can It Be an Act of Compassion and Mercy

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Taking Life: Can it be an Act of Compassion and Mercy?” Part II
VTR: 5/28/93

Whatever paths nations follow or overarching choices mankind makes about issues that universally claim our attention, surely it is instead whatever individual men and women you and we, decide and then do about these issues much closer to home and hearth that truly looms larger. So that whatever we do must be measured in personal moral terms.

I’m Richard Heffner. My friend and colleague is Elie Wiesel, distinguished writer, novelist, teacher, much-honored Nobel Peace Prize winner. Together our dialogues will examine what may be considered the moral responsibility of the private person in dealing with each of many issues facing us today. Those ranging from capital punishment to the proper boundaries between religion and politics, church and state. From the proper limits on extending life at its beginning and at its end, to education for what, for whom. Well, today our dialogue will focus on the taking of life, not in anger, in war, or in the violence that plagues our mean streets, but rather the taking of life as, rightly or wrongly, itself as an act of compassion and mercy.

Elie, mercy killing. That’s the phrase that’s frequently used. What’s your own response to that concept?

WIESEL: Impulsively, instinctively I would be against it. The word “mercy killing” is a terrible word. These are two parts that are incompatible. Killing is against mercy; mercy is against killing. And yet I know that the problem is a problem. It exists, and I am sure we are going to speak about it later on. There are certain cases when the person suffers so much that that person wants to die. Do we have the right to force him or her to go on living and suffering?

HEFFNER: No more, I would suspect, than we have the right to prevent him or her from going on living and perhaps suffering.

WIESEL: Well, that’s again a question. If a person wants to commit suicide in some nation, some nation’s jurisprudence forbids that person, and if that person survives goes to jail.

HEFFNER: And your personal opinion?

WIESEL: I, oh, I would try, if I suppose, I’ve never had that, suppose I witness the last moments of a person who wants to commit suicide. I think I would first try to persuade that person that death is never the answer.

HEFFNER: But what is your set on the concept of society interfering with an individual’s choice?

WIESEL: I think of…It so happens that at Boston University where I have been teaching for so many years, I was giving a course that least three years about suicide in literature. But never the same, but year after year we are somehow dealing with that subject, in the Bible, in antiquity, in modern literature. Either the writer who commits suicide or the character in a book who commits suicide. And therefore both are categories that are applicable to the course. And I learned quite a lot really. In the Bible for instance we have very few who committed suicide. King Saul, and he got away with it. Suicide is forbidden in Jewish law, and yet we celebrate King Saul.

HEFFNER: How?

WIESEL: He is a king, and we feel sorry for him. We don’t condemn him for committing suicide.

HEFFNER: Then how do you rationalize the injunction against suicide with that fact?

WIESEL: Actually, what we say is – it’s a very beautiful story, by the way – the two masters in the Talmud who walk in the desert. They speak about two persons walking in the desert. And the two of them have only one jug of water, enough for one to survive, but not enough for the two if they divide the water. What should they do? So one man, says, “Let them divide. Friends will remain friends. Even if it means that they die.” But…says, “No. The owner of the water should drink the water.” Why? And the reason is: my life is not my own. The owner of my life in the Talmud, in the Jewish tradition, I think in any religious tradition, the owner of my life is God, not me. So I have no right to do with my life what I want.

HEFFNER: Elie, I said before to you that I had gone back and was reading Night, that first wonderful autographical publication of yours…

WIESEL: …the only one… (???)

HEFFNER: Do we find Elie Wiesel in other…

WIESEL: I am just finishing a book of memoirs, where I do…it’s a huge…I kept a diary in 1945, since I left France. And so I have a lot…there I will have a lot.

HEFFNER: Since Auschwitz.

WIESEL: Since…Yeah. Since Auschwitz, yeah.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. Won’t I find…won’t others find Elie Wiesel in other fiction that you have written? Seriously.

WIESEL: (???) My town, yes, but me, no. Occasionally, yes, a hero does certain things that I had done as a child, but it’s always fictionalized and not about the Holocaust. I don’t believe that the Holocaust and fiction go together, you know.

HEFFNER: You’ve been very concerned about those who’ve made the effort, whether it is dramatic, drama, or fiction.

WIESEL: Documentaries I’m always for. Fiction and Auschwitz don’t go together. They are incompatible.

HEFFNER: You know, you talk about the tale of the judgment that “it is not mine to choose, that I should share my life”. It’s so interesting…I was thinking, as you said that, of Night and of what you had written about your father’s death, and of his dying. The question that came up…he was dying…there was very limited food and drink. Should you share yours with him?

WIESEL: Sure.

HEFFNER: Should you indeed, since he really couldn’t take that food. What was the nature…what was the nature of the moral resolution?

WIESEL: It was the moral resolution for saving my father, naturally. I always state that it was a question which for the moment passed through me because somebody else told me that: “Don’t think of your father, it’s too late. Think of yourself”. But I have learned…those who gave me such advice were wrong. The Germans, the enemy then, wanted us to behave that way. They wanted us to be selfish, self-centered, and ignoring, forgetting everything about others and survive. It was the wrong advice. Only those who were connected with another person through an ideal or through a family, only those had a chance to survive.

HEFFNER: But how does that relate to the injunction that it is not your life to share?

WIESEL: Yes, an injunction, but first, “Honor Your Father”. It was more than that to me. It was…I became so close to my father then that I knew I couldn’t survive him, and I didn’t…even afterwards, I wasn’t really alive. So I would have given my bread, not only his…everything I had for him.

HEFFNER: And done violence to…

WIESEL: Absolutely.

(???)

HEFFNER: Tell me about that. I’m intrigued by that. You say “absolutely” – Would you violate…

WIESEL: First of all at that point…at that point one doesn’t think in those terms. Perhaps intuitively, impulsively, as a human being, as a son…He was the only person in my family that remained with me. And I loved him there more than ever before. And so I would have lost my own humanity, my own self-respect, my own desire to live had I acted differently. Those conditions are beyond our understanding. Now, if I had thought “What should I do?”, and there were cases, I know there were cases that people went to a rabbi to ask for judgment in the camp. I didn’t. If I had found there was a problem, even then I would have found enough reasons to justify my behavior. Because (???) that I just quoted to you, there were two friends, but not a father and son. A father and son, whatever they own, they own together. So the (???) would have been their property, their common property. In truth, I didn’t think in those terms. I really wanted to be with my father and live for him.

HEFFNER: And if you were the rabbi who was asked this question, what would your…

WIESEL: Same thing…first of all, (הכבוד שלך אמא אבא), Honor thy father and mother.

HEFFNER: Above all else.

WIESEL: Above all else, because it’s part of the Ten Commandments. But then, the next part of the sentence, (כי אז אתה צריך להאריך ימים), so that you should live long. But that is such an irony, because the second part surely was in contradiction with the first…Honor Your Father…he would have died.

HEFFNER: Elie, what then should we understand about the nature, the function, the purpose of Talmudic injunctions, Biblical injunctions, scriptural injunctions?

WIESEL: Oh, they are there to help you, but very often in your life they cannot. You are alone. And in those times I was alone. Whatever I knew was of no consequence to me. The only thing that mattered was death; and the unique, defeated human being who was my father. I rarely speak about that, you know. I read about it; I very rarely speak about those times.

HEFFNER: Too painful.

WIESEL: It’s painful. Also, I don’t like to open myself that much. And also, really, I always get the feeling that people don’t understand. You do, because you and I have become very close friends. And you know what…even if I don’t say it you know what I said.

HEFFNER: What do you mean “people wouldn’t understand”?

WIESEL: They don’t understand the stories I want to tell, and feel I must tell. Occasionally, most often keep them to myself, feeling that nobody can understand. Even, Night, they read, but I do know that no one, no one, but I know that no one but we who were there, know. This knowledge cannot be communicated. And it pains me, it revolts me, because this is exactly what the killers wanted to attain. They pushed their (???), their cruelty beyond the limits of language, so that when we tell the tale, nobody knows what we are talking about. And yet – my favorite word – and yet, let me try.

HEFFNER: And yet, we won’t be here that much longer.

WIESEL: Of course. So therefore, even the experiments and museums are very good. People have a place to go and see pictures and see films, see documentaries and so forth. But even so, even if the museum in Washington, for instance, was built; if the visitor is feeling that now he or she knows, then it’s wrong. It should have been…what I wanted in the beginning for the museum…that when a person comes in, he or she will know, “Now, I don’t know”.

HEFFNER: You know that you don’t know. You cannot know.

WIESEL: I can’t.

HEFFNER: I…We’ve talked about a friend of mine who find that as she’s getting older – she’s my age – someone who was a victim of the camps – great depression setting in and you said to me something that was so interesting. You said, it must come, a good part at least, from the frustration that when her life was over, when my life was over, his life was over; there has been no way to communicate.

WIESEL: Yes, maybe, five hundred years from now, someone will sit here, or sit anywhere and will pick up a book that you or I have written and that person will feel…will feel more than a person today does.

HEFFNER: It certainly will be true of Night. I hear what you say. In fact, I was going to ask you if you would read these last pages…and I, in a sense, began there…

WIESEL: Look, you know…what I wouldn’t do for you…you ask me to do it…start at …”mercy”? Where?

HEFFNER: Yes, because I thought that the “mercy” was…

WIESEL: Well, “I knew that my father must not drink; because he pleaded with me for so long I gave in. Water was the worst poison he could have, but what else could I do for him? Water or without water, it would all be over soon anyway. And then he said, ‘You, at least, have some mercy on me’. Have mercy on him? I, his only son. A week went by like this. ‘This is your father, isn’t it?’ asked the head of the block. ‘Yes, he is very ill’, I answered. ‘The doctors won’t do anything for him’. And he said ‘The doctor can’t do anything for him now. Neither can you’. He put his great hairy hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Listen to me, Boy. Don’t forget that you are in a concentration camp. Every man has to fight for himself, and not think of anyone else, even of his father. Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone. I’ll give you some piece of advice. Don’t give your ration of bread and soup to your father. There is nothing you can do for him and you are killing yourself. Instead you ought to be having his ration’. I listened to him without interrupting. He was right, I felt, in the most secret region of my heart, but dared not admit it. ‘It’s too late to save your old father’, I said to myself. You ought to be having two rations of bread, two rations of soup’. Only a fraction of a second…I felt guilty enough to find a ration of soup to give my father, but he did not want it. All he wanted was water. ‘Don’t drink water’, I said. ‘Have some soup’. ‘I’m burning’, said he. ‘Why are you being so unkind to me, somewhat?’ (I wrote in “somewhat”) Then I went to the block for roll call. When I turned around and came back again I went down to the top bunk. Invalids were allowed to stay in the block…myself. I would not leave my father. There was silence all around now, broken only by groans. In the block, the SS were giving orders. An officer passed by the bed. My father begged me ‘My son, some water. I’m burning, my stomach’. ‘Quiet over there!’ yelled the officer. (???) The officer came up and yelled at him to be quiet, but my father did not hear him. He was calling me and calling me, and the officer dealt him a blow on the head with his stick. I did not move. I was afraid. My body was afraid of also receiving a blow. Then my father made a wretched noise, and it was my name, Eliezer. I could see that he was still breathing sporadically. I did not move. When I got down after roll call I could see him stammering something. Bending over him I stayed gazing at him for over an hour. (???)…his blood-stained face, his shattered skull. Then I had to go to bed. I climbed into my bunk without my father, who was still alive. It was January 28th, 1945. I awoke on January 29th at dawn. At my father’s place lay another individual. They must have taken him away before dawn and carried him to the crematory. He would still have been breathing. There were no prayers over his grave, no candles lit to his memory. His last word was my name, a summons to which I did not respond. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And in my being, in the recesses in my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might have found something like ‘free at last’. “

HEFFNER: Thank you, Elie. Mercy – (long pause) – What do we do with people who assist others out of mercy and compassion to end their lives? Not lives taken in Auschwitz, but people who suffer…?

WIESEL: I don’t think I can give you a general answer. I believe every human being is a universe himself. I think every human being presents humanity as such. And therefore, I will say that every case is a special case. Every case should be examined and explored as a special and unique case. Which means all of the arguments “for” and “against” have to be advanced again as if it were the first and the last.

HEFFNER: Elie, frequently you have said to me, and others said things…that you ask questions…

WIESEL: Sure.

HEFFNER: …that is your guide to human behavior, isn’t it?

WIESEL: Oh, yes.

HEFFNER: Not against…

WIESEL: I think the other person, to me, is always the question…I see the other person and question. But there is “quest” in “question”. I love the word “quest”. We are together here to find something, to go and search, searching together. Sometimes we are searching in each other for the same answer. And the answer becomes a question. I search it with you and you search it with me.

HEFFNER: That would point toward, I would imagine, toward “not”…and just as your statement that each case, that each individual involved…we must search out the truths involved…that we must not legislate one way or another in terms of this…what has become a social issue, whether we permit people or do not permit people. We talk so much about permitting things to happen, or prohibiting things from happening.

WIESEL: The discourse and the debates have become, I think, violent on both sides. The same discourse and the same debate that applied also to abortion, for instance; sometimes those who advocate, let’s say, abortion have one discourse and those against it have another, naturally. And sometimes I hear things that bother me, that offend me. I hear, in some circles, comparing abortion to the Holocaust. That is something that is unforgivable. In their minds what does it mean? That a woman who is choosing abortion is Hitler. You don’t do that. There aren’t enough civilized arguments without having discourse with such exaggerated accusations. Now with this legislation, I think that whatever we do, first of all we must have a kind of a self-searching and soul-searching phase, which we have not reached yet. Today people are shouting at each other. They are not really thinking together about these questions. So I say the quest has not really begun.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting that you say “Today we are shouting”. It seems to me from the perspective of 68 years, that we are shouting much, much, much more than we ever have in the past.

WIESEL: We don’t talk, we shout. This is the noisiest generation I’ve ever known. We have so many ways of communication. How do we communicate? Shouting. Never before have people spoken so harshly about each other to each other. The civility is gone. I don’t mean only the tenderness, but the friendship is gone in discourse. The moment people oppose each other they become enemies. Maybe at the end of the century, in the millennium, language has been subjected to so many offenses. We have to start again to teach our contemporaries how to speak.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting. You say that language has been subjected to well, I would say indignities. I suppose you would, too. We would assume that as technology provides us with more and more means of reaching out, the same moment simultaneously reaching out to so many people, that we are better off for those increased means, perfected means of communication. You see otherwise.

WIESEL: I see otherwise. What do we say…it’s true we say here, we can say anything that could be heard from millions of miles away. But what do we say to that person who’s listening? What is the moral message of the last 30 years? Although in the last 30 years humankind has made more progress (???)…since the creation of the universe.

HEFFNER: Material, physical.

WIESEL: Physical, exactly. Physical. But when it comes to morality or philosophy, what is the progress? So we know more about each other than before? Do we know what is happening in somebody else’s heart? Do we have more compassion for each other? Look at the homeless people here. Look at the victims of racism and the victims of discrimination. Are we really better today? Have we improved in any way? Or can we match the technological progress to the “progress” in quotation marks, that we must make, that we could have made in the field of morality or in human relations? Are human beings closer to one another?

HEFFNER: Clearly your answer is “no” and it leads me to a question…more and more attuned to that – we just have a minute left – Do you think there’s a necessary connection between the physical progress and the moral regression?

WIESEL: I think there is. Superficially…we’ll come back to it next time we speak. We are doing everything possible…Doctors are doing everything possible to prolong one’s life. The moment a person becomes old they throw you away…becomes useless…why prolong his life? To make a person ashamed and useless? There is nothing worse than to humiliate another human being, so why create conditions in which a person lives longer only to receive humiliation?

HEFFNER: Guilt?

WIESEL: Yes…

HEFFNER: Life must be continued?

WIESEL: Oh, I don’t even think that. What they are doing really, is they are not thinking.

HEFFNER: Elie, we do so many things without thinking. I’m so glad for this little oasis in which we can talk and think alike. This is the end of our program today. We’ll come back with more dialogue. Thank you again.

WIESEL: Thank you.

  • Dr. Frank Braio

    Terrific!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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