GUEST: Elie Wiesel
AIR DATE: 01/25/2013
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind…and about my guest today – who has joined me at this table so many times in the past – and about his touching new book titled Open Heart … President Barack Obama has just written, “With characteristic eloquence, honesty and wisdom, Elie Wiesel takes us on another journey to the precipice of death and draws timeless lessons about life.”
Writer, teacher, much honored and beloved Nobel Peace Prize Laureate – witness to and victim of the inhumanity and outrages of the Holocaust – my guest here asks of his recent open heart surgery and its intimations of mortality, “Am I ready … is one ever ready?”
He answers that “Some of the ancient Greek philosophers, as well as some Hasidic masters, claimed to have spent their lifetimes preparing for death…but the Jewish tradition … counsels another way: We sanctify life, not death. ”
“You shall choose life”, says Scripture, “and the
living … with the promise to live a better, more humane life.”
Now my guest has always done that … but I know from reading Open Heart, this amazing new little volume, how profoundly different this experience was for Elie Wiesel. And I would ask if he would — if he can – I would ask him to share that experience with us. Is that fair to do, Elie?
WIESEL: Whatever you do is fair. You know that.
HEFFNER: Well, I’m going to put the question to you … how is it different … because I have the feeling as I read Open Heart that there is a different Elie Wiesel.
WIESEL: Because of the event, because of the experience. I came very close to death, very, very close. I but I have been close in death for a long time. So I, I’m not afraid. I thought so at least.
But in this case, for the first time there, I heard the word “open heart surgery” … (laugh) … there’s something about it, “open heart surgery” … and five by-passes … it’s a … it was the pain I worried about.
HEFFNER: And was there that much pain?
WIESEL: Of course. How can there not be any? But then, of course, there are pills and medications. But I don’t like that. I, I like to, to know my pain, I like to be aware of my pain … rather than ignore it … because I, I … an injection or because I swallow a certain pill. But I had to take them anyway.
HEFFNER: Tell me why you say that … you like the …to know what it is you’re feeling.
WIESEL: (Sigh) My dear friend, you know … what, what is philosophy … what is literature … what is humanity … if not knowing every minute what we are and what we do with it. Not knowing is not an option. Not knowing what I want to do and not knowing what I have done. That is never an option.
The more I know, the more I live and the more I live … says the Ecclesiastes … the more I live, the more I know. But the suffering is there, of course.
HEFFNER: Elie, have you not ever wanted to …I think of your experiences as a child … the experience with your father … I, I think of all that you have written about your early life. Have you never wanted to set … I won’t say “forget” … to set that aside?
WIESEL: No. How can I? I have … you know … I written and published 60 books. Very few deal with that subject, with that era. But somehow it’s there. It cannot not be there. It’s not that I want to forget. On the contrary, I want to remember more … and I’m not afraid of pain. I’m not afraid of, of sleepless nights. I don’t have that fear.
The only fear I have is when I write, will I find the right word? That’s all.
HEFFNER: You don’t have to worry about that, you always have found the right words.
WIESEL: I’m not so sure … you know … that this is … you know I have doubts, I always have doubts.
HEFFNER: Is … they grow, Elie?
WIESEL: They grow.
HEFFNER: Do they grow as you get older?
WIESEL: Certainly. With age I have more questions than answers and more fears than, than consolation.
HEFFNER: It, it’s so strange for me to hear you say that, because … to use the word “fear” in relation to my friend, Elie Wiesel … they don’t go together.
WIESEL: No, I’m not afraid of … again, I’m not afraid of pain, I’m not afraid of, of displeasing, let’s say, certain people. I’m not afraid of these kind of things, but I … or, or going in the street alone … I’m simply afraid of not finding the right words? I’ve always had that fear. Even when I began writing.
I’m afraid that the words that I use are not the proper words.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “proper”?
WIESEL: In the beginning when I wrote (cough) … my first book, Night, right … I was afraid that since there are no words for it …how can I write with words? So fear actually was there, present in every line … on every page when I wrote it.
So I finished the book …but the fear …the fear remained … it survived it.
HEFFNER: When was … when … what, what was year of Night … when did it come out in English?
WIESEL: In English … I think 1960. In Yiddish, it came out in 1955 in Buenos Aires. In ’54 or ’5, yes. In French 1956. And in English … in ’60.
HEFFNER: And your fears?
WIESEL: Always …
HEFFNER: Surely you should have put them aside by now because when I talk to children, when I talk to high school students and college students … who are all familiar now with Night … how many, how many years now … 60? … 50? …
HEFFNER: … and it goes on and on and on. How could you be concerned about the wrong words, or not finding the right words?
WIESEL: I am. Look, I, I wish I could say something else. But I really am. Fear is there. Before the fear is “maybe I will not be …find the words”. Than “have I found the right words”? (Laugh) It doesn’t matter … it doesn’t stop me from working. It’s simply there … it accompanies my work. It doesn’t stop me, I’m not saying to you, because of my fear I stopped writing … I write.
HEFFNER: This fear … I, I can’t dismiss it as a cultural matter, I can’t dismiss it as part of your heritage … it’s so personal …
WIESEL: Personal, very personal … yes. Sure.
HEFFNER: When you write, you write in French
HEFFNER: And Marion, your wife … translates …
WIESEL: Most … most of my books, since I got married, she does, yes. But I write in French … yes.
WIESEL: I don’t know. I came to France … when I came to France in 1945 … I didn’t know a word of French, but somehow I did not so much adopt the language, as the language has adopted me. But I need another language … a new language. And I learned it very, very fast, very quickly … to the point that now I can write an article in English, or Hebrew or Yiddish … but books only in French. Because I, I have sought literature, culture, philosophy, everything that I, I read is … was …. and still is in French. Even American novels … I read them in French translation.
HEFFNER: In the hospital …with Open Heart … were you think in French or Hebrew or Yiddish?
WIESEL: No. Yiddish.
HEFFNER: Why do you think Yiddish, was it your first language?
WIESEL: My first language. But you know, when you ask … you know … I’m sure you will know … when, when you are so sick, you become a child … it’s your childhood that comes into your being and takes over. You are helpless, like a child. You are innocent, almost, like a child.
WIESEL: Yes. You become … because so much pain has expiated your sins.
HEFFNER: Is that true, Elie? Do you feel that?
WIESEL: Oh, I committed so many sins that I think that I didn’t have enough pain (laugh) …
HEFFNER: No yet.
WIESEL: Not yet.
HEFFNER: What did you … what did you … I’m, I’m so interested because … you know I’m going to go in for surgery and I …as I read your book … I was thinking …what am I going to feel? What has Elie felt?
WIESEL: Okay. So that you can … get it in this little book, you know.
HEFFNER: I know.
WIESEL: And I was still in the hospital … but everything was okay. My doctor’s told me, “you know, okay … not “you will live” … it took three days for them to decide … that okay, everything is okay … you will live.” But we want to tell you, you are going to be very, very tired for years and very depressed.” So I don’t know how to fight fatigue. Do not know. But I do know how to fight depression.
WIESEL: I began writing.
HEFFNER: Oh …and worrying about the words?
WIESEL: There … afterwards … but not while. So you do the same thing, my dear friend, when you are in the hospital … have a pen there and write. Take, take the advice of an older friend of yours.
HEFFNER: Not an older friend … remember that, Elie. As I read the book Open Heart … we talk here on the Open Mind… you experienced the open heart surgery … unique … different from anything you’ve …
WIESEL: Yes, because of almost … first of all the heart, I’m supposed to believe that I am in my heart … my soul is supposed to be in my heart. When I am alone, I speak to my heart.
And then I found out, for instance, that when the surgery takes place, the heart is next to you (laugh) …
HEFFNER: Lying there …
WIESEL: … lying there … so I speak to my heart … lying there (laugh) …
HEFFNER: What did you … what did you … you express it here, but I want you to tell me here and tell those who are viewing … although they should read the book … what was that like … I mean you must have been semi-conscious of what was going on.
WIESEL: Semi … first of all … look, look at … what happened really is very, very strange by the way … I have a very, very good doctor.
And I go once a year … I go for a check-up. And he gave me a check up and everything was good. Except, I suffer from migraine headaches … all my life … from age 7 … (sigh) … I had migraine headaches until the day I entered Auschwitz … they stopped when I entered Auschwitz … they came back when I left Auschwitz. As to this day I suffer from terrible migraine headaches.
That I spoke to so many doctors, specialists … there’s nothing they can do. My mother had migraines, my father … my grandfather … hereditary.
Then with this, my headaches were there, but not in the hospital. My pain … other pain was greater than my headaches.
HEFFNER: Which was true of Auschwitz.
WIESEL: Naturally. So there … I went … I saw my doctor … a very good man, a nice man, a good friend … became a good friend. And he checked me out … he said “everything is okay”.
But I had to go for an endoscopy … that day I want to an endoscopy and the guy who did it … also a friend … all become my friends and doctors.
He said to me “Hey, this is not the stomach, I think it’s your heart”. I had never had problems with my heart. But I had that day, that morning at 9:00 o’clock … a meeting with Iranian refugees, dissents … I take … you know I take care of this kind of people.
And in … all of a sudden … calling … my other doctors, my generalist calls me, he didn’t want to frighten me … he says, “You know, you have to come for another test”. That’s all. I said, “I cannot”. He said, “You must”. (Laugh) I said, “I cannot” we began quarreling. I said, “For whom I have here … for whom it’s a matter of life and death, they are sentenced to die, if they go back to Iran.”
So we made a deal. I’m very good … since, since childhood, I’ve put deal-making (laugh) … at noon I’ll be there … three hours.”
HEFFNER: And then you went home.
WIESEL: No, I didn’t have time to go home. But I called for my wife, my wife … Marion … I don’t know why … I said, “You know what, come with me.” And the moment we came, they were waiting for me already at the entrance, at the gate and quickly to surgery.
Why … I don’t … something they discovered that day … the last test. And immediately they realized … that it’s the heart and while the first doctor … who actually had operated on my wife two years earlier, said to me “I hope it’s the same thing”. And then it’s nothing, I’ll put in a stent, which I did for your wife.” And all of a sudden he says, “Ah, I’m sorry, Elie, it’s much more serious and I think you are going to need open heart surgery.”
So that’s … all of a sudden the world changed. And by the time I was ready … they called … Marion was there, she called my son, Elisha and when I saw them I realized how serious it is. And they … just pushed me to gurney … the gurney to the door … that was my fear … the real fear … I wasn’t sure I would see them again.
HEFFNER: You were a lousy patient, though. As you talk about your relationship with your doctors, who becomes your friend …
WIESEL: Yeah, sure.
HEFFNER: … you …
WIESEL: I’m a bad patient … I’m good friend, but a, a bad patient.
HEFFNER: That’s what I gathered from Open Heart. Why?
WIESEL: I don’t know. I’m … look, I’m not that bad after all … I go to see them and, and we talk about philosophy, usually, all my doctors … (laughter) not about me, we talk about philosophy.
But, no, I don’t know. I … listen … the same time I listen to the doctors, and I’m grateful to them, believe me I’m very grateful for what they are doing … I always feel jealous …
WIESEL: Yeah, of the, of the doctors.
HEFFNER: Their knowledge?
WIESL: Their knowledge and the way, look, for me to help someone it would take months … if he or she would become my students, or read at least my books. There, that one injection … it’s finished.
HEFFNER: That’s wonderful.
WIESEL: So I am jealous the good that they can do so fast. With me it would take, I don’t know, years. And they save lives. I have not saved a single life.
HEFFNER: You don’t think that you’ve saved lives?
WIESEL: I don’t think so, no. Not directly. Maybe by my teaching …
WIESEL: … when I think of influence, yes, but it’s among the unknown readers of students … but in their case they know who … they do the work and they save life … they saved mine.
HEFFNER: Elie, when you were recovering, what changes did you experience … if any?
WIESEL: Oh, yes. First of all physical … I couldn’t move and, you know, when you’re in the hospital, you’re a kind, kind of prisoner. You need a nurse for anything … literally for anything.
And then I couldn’t take it anymore. I’m impatient to leave. But nevertheless, again, you know, the doctors were all the time and they still are. I see them of course.
HEFFNER: The strange question that, that … I suppose strange question that occurs to me … we’ve known each other so long, we come … in a sense from the same background and in a very real sense, from very different backgrounds. We feel close to each other. What did you feel that was … as you felt that you were coming closer, perhaps to lifelessness … you were frightened by hearing the words “open heart”.
WIESEL: Yes …
WIESEL: Yes, but you know … yes, but at the same time remember in my past … when I was … first I thought of my father. My father … and we were together in the place where we lived in death … not only with the death … we did, we did that a lot of time. They would sleep, let’s say somewhere … and we got up in the morning and the person there was already dead and, you realize, without any shock … that we slept, slept with a dead person.
And that time, that was the “norm”, not life. So I was used to this kind of, of attitude, reaction.
Here, the fear was sort of well not to see those that I love for the last time … the word “the last time”. And I describe it here, that when I saw lot in my mind, or in my dreams, or in my hallucinations, I saw my father and I thought maybe he came to take me with him.
And that was not a fear, it was a kind of reassurance … I wouldn’t be alone. But … to be alone for the dead is really not an option they gave … it’s not a solution … we must be alone … if even alone with the living.
HEFFNER: You say our tradition is …
WIESEL: Yeah sure.
HEFFNER: … is one of living.
WIESEL: Always life. Whatever … look, in, in, in, in our tradition, for instance, you cannot touch a corpse. Because the corpse makes you impure. Even Moses, the holiest, the greatest of all our figures in the Bible, it is God who took care of him when he died. Because human beings would have been impure. Any corpse. We cannot touch a corpse. That is impure, only life is pure. Only life is holy, that is not. This is a code of traditions … based on what is good … what is good literally. Your have to chose between good and evil. What is good is life. What is bad is evil.
HEFFNER: Your experience then was a re-affirming one.
WIESEL: Oh, absolutely. Look I became, I became more the person I was or had been … which is the result of pain. Usually pain can either make you worse or better.
HEFFNER: It ….
WIESEL: What more, more superficial and more profound.
HEFFNER: Did you think back to Auschwitz?
WIESEL: On, naturally, sure, it came back. And I was there, as you say, in my semi-coma or something … of course, I went back and I saw … I remembered the days and the nights with my father.
HEFFNER: I remember so well the program we did together when I had the temerity, certainly not wisdom, but temerity and to ask you if you would read that passage …
HEFFNER: ,,, when you’re father died.
HEFFNER: And it was such an incredible experience watching you read those great words.
WIESEL: Because … I write about it in my autobiography, All The Rivers Run to the Sea, which, which … at home I was closer to my mother, a young child. Actually all children are … because my father was always busy. And we became inseparable.
WIESEL: Literally and, and, and he never left me. I must have told you that. When I got the Nobel Prize, after all the great ceremony, it’s a huge ceremony, it’s a once in a lifetime … and you know what that was, ceremony … the king … everybody (cough) … and then came my turn to speak.
You know, Chairman of the Committee announced me, all the praise in the world and now … all of a sudden, because it was such an important moment, I saw my father. And I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t open my mouth. I think it took me two or three moments … infinitely long moments to shake up and, and speak. I see him. Look life is made of moments … you remember … not of years, but of moments and that was such a moment. But the important moments, I see my father.
HEFFNER: Because of the teachings or because of that experience, I always have the sense of your being so much the experience of the teachings you have absorbed.
WIESEL: The teachings, oh the teaching is one of the 10 Commandments … “honor thy father and thy mother.” But that became my intimate experience. Because of what we’ve been through together.
HEFFNER: Yeah. How many years ago is that now, Elie.
WIESEL: 1944, 1945. (Cough)
HEFFNER: And remembrance has been the word that you’ve used so, so often in the years. The importance of remembrance. Are you, are you more sanguine today that we will remember those years.
WIESEL: We have to.
HEFFNER: Elie, that’s not the question.
WIESEL: Oh, I know … you have to … which means it’s a kind of …. almost a commandment, we have to remember. If not we are lost. If we forget that experience, for humanity, not only for the Jewish people, for humanity, history will not forgive us and who knows what could happen in the world.
HEFFNER: You said that to me here many decades ago. Today would you say you can be as certain or are as uncertain that we remember as those years ago. What’s happened? Has it been a plus or a minus?
WIESEL: No, we remember. On one level, never before have there been more books on that subject, more memoirs on the subject …
HEFFNER: Aha …
WIESEL: … more exhibits on the subjects, more programs on the subject. More museums. Take the museum in Washington … like the one in Jerusalem. This is a great monument, 20 million people go there … 20 years or so and more in the museum in Washington, which I have built with my friends. The people want to know. The people want to know. Where did we go wrong? That’s the question they all ask. Where did we go wrong.
HEFFNER: Where did mankind go wrong?
WIESEL: Yes, of course, I mean humanity, where did mankind go wrong? Where did history go wrong? It wasn’t simply an aberration of history, it was a human made place. It didn’t come down from heaven, ready-made … Auschwitz was made by human beings. The human mind has invented it. Has created it.
HEFFNER: And you’re willing to say because we must remember that we are remembering.
WIESEL: Yes. This commandant, in all kinds of ways you remember.
HEFFNER: How can I disagree with my friend Elie Wiesel? How can I?
WIESEL: Oy …
HEFFNER: … but, but I do.
WIESEL: I, I know I have an argument justifying your pessimism. If we really remembered, the world would be a better place. If we really remembered there would be no Rwanda and, and children would not starve in Africa. And human beings would not be persecuted in all kinds of places and there would be no 40 thousands victims already in Syria, killed by, by their own leader.
HEFFNER: And I wonder what it means that just as you say that, I’m told that our time is over.
HEFFNER: Elie, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.
WIESEL: Always good. Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.