A Conversation with Elie Wiesel

GUEST: Elie Wiesel
VTR: 04/07/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And the other day I was puzzling quite how to introduce this program with my old friend Elie Wiesel, writer, teacher, much honored Noble Peace Prize Laureate, witness to and victim of the inhumanity and outrage of the Holocaust and now of a spreading wave of Anti-Semitism that seems to know no end.

Well, I thought back to The Open Mind’s early years and to our annual “Report on Civil Rights” in the 1950s that I would do each January with Jesuit writer/editor Father John LaFarge; Roy Wilkens, head of the NAACP; and Irving Engel, Chair of the American Jewish Committee.

The point is that those seemed always to be Progress Reports … however slow and inadequate the progress my guests could bring to this table.

But now, a half-century later, when Elie Wiesel and I talk here quite often about the abomination of Anti-Semitism, I find our conversations more and more disheartening. They’re not about progress, but about its opposite.

Indeed, a year ago at this table I had to report that even as attacks upon Jews newly surface all over the world, most shocking of all, Elie Wiesel had himself been physically accosted – here in America – at an Inter-Faith Conference in San Francisco. What George Will has characterized as “the world’s most durable ideology” clearly shames us more and more.

And I want to ask my guest – my good friend – what I have touched on with him many times before: a question that I’ve asked, whether all of this doesn’t challenge, if not his nerve, then surely his faith. Elie, it’s an old question.

WIESEL: My faith in what? My faith in whom? It is my faith in humanity. Of course it’s challenged, sometimes wounded. But what is the alternative? To say, give up, I give in. No. I wouldn’t credit the enemy with such strength.

My faith in God, oh, it has been challenged in worse times. There again, it’s a wounded faith. But it’s there.

What is the alternative? To say, “Good bye, Mr. God. You go your way, I’ll go mine?” I come from a traditional family … an upbringing that doesn’t allow me to do that. I cannot divorce God.

Of course, my question is always … to myself … am I God’s victim? Am I his prisoner? Or his orphan?

HEFFNER: And your answer?

WIESEL: (Laugh) Dick you know me too well to know I don’t have answers.

HEFFNER: Just questions.

WIESEL: Good questions. And they become, as you said earlier to, to the audience … and they become more and more painful because they are permanent.

HEFFNER: I think I told you that out in California recently a, a group of women who’ve met together every month for years and years and years now … decades, in fact. And they read a book, they talk about it.

And they most recently read Night … that wonderful volume of yours … and they asked me, specifically, when I met with them to ask you that question about faith. And they meant faith in God. It’s very difficult to accept your questions in response to that question.

WIESEL: (Sigh) My tragic problem during those times was not so much with humanity, with society, with culture … that came later … but only with God. Because I come from a religious … totally religious upbringing.

To me it was God. God is good. God is merciful, charitable. And God is with us everywhere. That is the most famous saying in The Zohar, the Book of Splendor, there is no place void of God. And therefore my question was “Where is God?” Is he here? Some mystics believe in the eclipse of God.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean … the eclipse …

WIESEL: The eclipse, that God can, can eclipse, can actually withdraw himself, just as the sun withdraws itself from, from the earth occasionally.

But it’s not an answer to me. Just when we need him, why does he go away? Others believe in the hidden face of God. God is hiding his face, it’s a biblical expression … and again I said, “What do you mean?”

When we need his face. When we need his presence, his promise, his power, is he not here? Dick, I have no answer to that. I don’t know, really. Was he in … he must have been there, as a victim, of course.

Some people believe he was also … it could not be … with the victimizer. Could they have done anything with such cruelty … because of such power … without God? So what did God want to prove? I don’t know.

So when we come to these metaphysical questions about the basis of all philosophy … I don’t know what to say except I had all the reasons in the world to say “no” to such fate. But I don’t use them. Because on a different level, I have the same reasons to say good-bye society. Good-bye culture. Good-bye education. Because I had seen that those who killed children day after day had college degrees.

You and I are educated. I believe in education, as you do. Whatever the complex answer may be to essential questions in the world … education must be a major component of the answer. And there it was the negation of that answer. They had college degrees. They had Ph.D., which means they had spent 10 to 12 years in college reading good books, Plato and Schiller. Learning to admire the good painting … Padura … or Rembrandt. Listening to Bach and Beethoven. And they could kill children? In the hundreds? In the thousands?

So I and my generation …in outrage could have said “If that is culture, I want no part of it.”

But there comes a moment when a human being says, “I have the right to say that. But I have also the right not to use that argument.”

And say why should children today be responsible for what others have done to children then?

And if I can do anything, as a friend, as a teacher, as a writer … I cannot not do it. And that really is my moral philosophy.

HEFFNER: But it’s not over. Every day we read, we hear about more … not on the scale … sometimes people think … almost on the scale of the Holocaust … we can reject that notion. But we see man’s inhumanity to man. And so I ask you not that these young women in California ask me to ask you this … but I must … what does it say about the nature of human nature?

WIESEL: That it is human. Occasionally to be inhuman. And that is what pains us most. Because you and I believe in humanity. In the humanity of the human being. And yet there were those who violated it. And what they have done became a blasphemy, an outrage.

Today it’s true, there still are racists in the world. Don’t they know that racism is stupid. I’m not even saying “unfair and immoral”. It is stupid to believe that the color of a skin of the person determines his or her destiny. Oh, really?

Who is an anti-Semite? Somebody who hated me before I was born. And on, on, on the larger scale … will the world ever learn … once I addressed the United Nations and I asked this question: Will the world ever learn?

And the answer is … it hasn’t. If the world had learned … there would have been no Rwanda, no Bosnia, no Darfur. And definitely no tragedy in Tibet today.

HEFFNER: Elie … I … the question I ask even as I gave my personal sermon, opening the program … I wondered whether you agree with the notion and anti-Semitism is growing. Is increasing. Is spreading.

WIESEL: Where? In the world? On the planet? Essentially in our country … there, there we must be very careful because to level an accusation of anti-Semitism is the most serious accusation I can, I cannot undertake, and therefore I am careful.

In America, for instance, we have our collective memory and I’m an American, so I accept it. And we done terrible things in America in our history. What we have done to the Native Americans … they didn’t invite us, we came and what we have done to them. What we have done to the Black community. I must have told you that because it’s with me … when I came to America in 1956, I went on a coast to coast trip … journalist friends gave me a lift … I wanted to know the country.

When I came to the South and I saw racism at work functioning … I was, of course, outraged. But then when I saw that it was the law … racists were protected by the law … I felt shame. For the first time in my life I felt shame.

Not for being Jewish, I had never had that shame. In spite of what the enemy had tried to do to us. Never.

I felt shame for being White. I felt the same thing in South Africa when I went to South Africa in the seventies to fight apartheid, I felt shame for being White when I visited the Sowetos.

We changed in America. It’s the law that forbids racism. It took the killing of a President, the murder of his brother, the assassination of Martin Luther King. But the law has changed.

Does it mean there are no more racists? Of course there are. No more anti-Semites? Yes, there are. But “ism” is gone.

HEFFNER: “Ism” is gone?

WIESEL: Yeah. However it exists … I, I’m … I hesitate to locate it. In certain Muslim lands, ruled by extremists and we know each other too well not to say, you know I am not anti-religious and I’m for all religion. I, I, I plead, plead for respect in, in, in religious terms. But there are extremists like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. And also those who celebrate him. And those who only dream of destroying the Jewish state, the first in 2,000 years. They are anti-Semites.

When you hear Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah and the number two man from Al Qaeda in their statements saying “From now on we are going to kill and attack not only Israeli’s but also Jews everywhere”. What are they if not anti-Semites?

HEFFNER: So, Yes and No …

WIESEL: Yes and no.

HEFFNER: … is the answer.

WIESEL: Yes and no.

HEFFNER: Ahhh, my … I can’t quite understand it … Elie … recently I, I … my wife and I went to see a film … I don’t know whether you’ve seen it … “The Counterfeiter” … recently and I came out and I said, my body, my soul, my spirit can’t stand any longer the depiction of the Holocaust, of concentration camps, of the violence. I don’t know why …perhaps I should tell it … understand it in terms of my age. I simply am worn away by it.

And then I thought to myself in a couple of days I’m going to do another Open Mind with my friend Elie Wiesel and I think of what you have experienced. And your memory and I felt rather ashamed of myself, but I understood what it must be for some people to collapse under the weight of an understanding of man’s inhumanity to man.

And you didn’t really answer my question … because I raised the question …

WIESEL: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … about the nature of human nature. And you’ve avoided that.

WIESEL: No, no … I’ll, I’ll elaborate in that case. Number one, you should never feel ashamed. What you are doing is bringing truth to imagination … it’s great … in matters of politics, in matters of life, in society … you are doing. But you know friends don’t praise one another.

Except you said it yourself … I have to correct you. But one thing is I understand why you stopped, you say, “I cannot see it anymore.” With me it’s different. I want to see everything.

And I … to read any book in any language available to me that comes out, I read. And there are so many of them now.

Same thing with films, with documentaries. I read, I’ve seen that film … everything … I want to see everything. Because each time I say to myself, “Maybe now I will finally understand” and I never do.

HEFFNER: And you never do.

WIESEL: So, I’m waiting for the next one. And of course it’s more and more painful. I say, nevertheless, maybe I’ll understand and I never do.

As for the incomplete answer I gave you … what should I conclude … that every person is capable of becoming a killer … no. Only the killers are killers. There is a limit beyond which we don’t go. It would be too easy for the killers to say “you are like me” even the circumstances and therefore I feel for the sake of the young readers that we deal with … the young students that we encounter … or simply the innocent people, the good people, the brave people, the decent people who listen to you … we have no right to tell … that actually there is in you an Adolf Eichmann … no. I am not transgressing that limit.

I feel that as long as they are who they are, they are be embraced, but not suspected.

HEFFNER: Until they take the gun and …

WIESEL: Until they take the gun and kill children. No. Until they do that I say they are not capable of doing that.

HEFFNER: But Elie … you, you … to say you contradict yourself …

WIESEL: I’m not afraid of that. I do that all the time. (Laugh)

HEFFNER: When you thought of those guards, of those killers in the camps, they were, as you said, not just educated people, they were fairly ordinary people. What made them killers?

WIESEL: I don’t want to know. I don’t want to analyze them. I want to judge them and condemn them.

HEFFNER: Have we done that, by the way, looking back over all these years, since you were liberated. Have we done that with real consistency? Oh, I know, the Eichmann trial and we can talk about other instances.

WIESEL: You mean have we condemned them? Have we judged them? Some, not all. No. But the trials were important trials. The Nuremburg trial in spite of the legal objections that were made at a time and even afterwards … I think that was an important trial, politically speaking.

Pedagogically speaking, almost. The same thing with the Eichmann trial, the Barbi trial … all these trials were important. But the problem was … when I covered the Eichmann trial … I must have told you … I expected to come into the courtroom and see a monster … a Picasso like figure … three eyes and five ears.

No, it’s a normal human being. I checked with the people who actually guarded him. He ate well. Slept well. Defended himself well. He was normal.

HEFFNER: I remember when we spoke at this table, one of the programs we did on capital punishment. The material that appeared in a little book …

WIESEL: Our book.

HEFFNER: Our Conversations with Elie Wiesel, which we must expand.

WIESEL: We must update it, yes.

HEFFNER: I, I was just thinking … updating … how do you update the kinds of things we talk about there? But … on the question of capital punishment …

WIESEL: Let’s do it and then, then discuss it.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WIESEL: Think about it afterwards.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) The … you’re against capital punishment?

WIESEL: Yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: But I asked you about Eichmann. You said, “There was an exception.”

WIESEL: I was against it deep down, but I accepted Israel’s judgment, saying, “This is the only case in our history, said the Israeli Supreme Court, “The only case … never again that the person will be executed.”

HEFFNER: A phrase you just used, “Never Again”. That resonates now, doesn’t it?

WIESEL: Yes.

HEFFNER: Does it have the same meaning that it did in the mid-1940s?

WIESEL: Only to those who read history … but those who don’t … of course, they hear “Never Again”, they don’t know what it means … never again.

And I, I … as you know … I don’t like to transform important words into routine words. So I don’t like when “never again” is being abused or misused …

HEFFNER: How is it used correctly?

WIESEL: That never again will the world allow itself to be taken over by hate ideologists aimed at singling out, imprisoning, isolating, killing an entire community. An entire human community. That’s what I would apply to “Never again”.

HEFFNER: A valid expression. Not a righteous one? But one that has meaning today, too, that has strength.

WIESEL: Well there are so many don’ts … that almost … the people will comment “don’t” … as you know … for me, the Bible … I love the Bible. I’m a student of the Bible and the Talmud, I love it.

But when we spoke about Cain and Abel … Cain and Abel actually was a great story. It’s a depressing story. The first brothers in history … in Eden’s history … and one became the killer or the victim of the other. Why is it there?

Because when Cain has killed Abel he didn’t know that there would be death. It was the first death in history. The first death in history was a murder.

However, God asks him, “Where is thy brother?”. He says, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

My interpretation of it is different. I don’t … “I didn’t know that I was supposed to be my brother’s keeper.” The lesson is … each time there is a situation in which human beings are being threatened, condemned, suffering … I cannot say I didn’t know that I am their keeper. I AM their keeper.

HEFFNER: The expression, “I am my brother’s keeper”, or “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. I find that fewer and fewer people understand that. Fewer and fewer. Not more and more, but not enough … but fewer and fewer.

Now I’m, I’m told that we have here now … just a couple of minutes left. I wanted to ask you about something … everything is inter-related, everything that we talk about …

WIESEL: Sure.

HEFFNER: … is related. But memory. Your greatest concern when we spoke at this table decades ago was memory … keeping the memory of what had happened. How do you feel about that now.

WIESEL: It is still my major objective. I have published about … I think fifty books, including ours together. All deal with memory although very few deal with the Second World War. Because memory is its own universe, its own mystery, its own seduction, its own pitfalls, its own danger, its own architecture, even its own language. And memory, therefore, is the, the name that applies to everything a human being can do or not do. So I, I celebrate it, I work for it. But my fear is there.

Remember we spoke about my novel, The Forgotten … Alzheimer’s … the patient is like a book. Every day you tear out a page and another page and another page and there are no more pages left, only the cover. And I said to myself, when I wrote … and what if it happens to everyone? To humanity? A curse. The Gods, to teach us a lesson removed memory from all of us. Then what? So of course I live in fear of that. Everybody does.

HEFFNER: Elie … once again … speaking with you is so meaningful to me and I respect that so much and love you for coming here to talk. And you’ll come back again …

WIESEL: Of course.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much joining …

WIESEL: Thank you, my …

HEFFNER: … me today.

WIESEL: Thank you, my friend.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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