Elie Wiesel

Whatever We Do Must Be Measured in Moral Terms

VTR Date: March 7, 1986


HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner your host on THE OPEN MIND. When Elie Wiesel was my guest last time, I suggested that we talk about the indifference, the carelessness that now informs so much of human activity, of human behavior. Not that I wanted to talk about the accidental. In the great swirl of life, that must concern us less. But about the carelessness that is indifference that does mean caring less about our fellow human beings than being human demands. But we spoke at one point about the early indifference of American political leadership to the suffering of Jews in Nazi concentration camps. And I asked Mr. Wiesel if that indifference stemmed from ignorance. If we just didn’t know the facts. He said otherwise. He said the knowledge was there. But somehow that knowledge did not become ethical knowledge.

More recently Mr. Wiesel said, “whatever we do must be measured in moral terms.” And I wonder whether Bhopal, the faulty decision to launch Challenger, the taking so often now of so-called acceptable risks in our age, the high-tech age of profit and progress, whether they don’t all seem to mean that increasingly we moderns fail to measure ourselves and our actions in moral terms. And Mr. Wiesel, that’s the question that I would put to you. Is there a general failure to meet the criterion that you establish?

WIESEL: There is. And therefore from time to time we have a sign given to us by someone or by something. You mentioned the Challenger. I, of course, shared the grief of the nation and the world and the families, but when we think beyond that episode, what should we ask ourselves? The best of American minds were working on the Challenger. Thousands and thousands of people knew that piece of work. That piece of art. That piece of science. Better than I know my own body. They knew every cell, every fiber. And yet an accident occurred. Who could guarantee me that a missile, a nuclear missile, somewhere in the United States would also accidentally be fired and go to Russia? Or a Russian missile would accidentally be fired and go to America? And that would be the beginning and the end. I’ve been thinking about it. Can we think from A to B? And even better, do we know what A means? So it is the moral and philosophical aspect, of course, that is missing in all of our endeavors these days?

HEFFNER: But when you start you say it is almost as if there were some meaning to this. What did you mean?

WIESEL: I mean there are so many events taking place in our lifetime that I have the feeling we are living in Biblical times. The pace is so fast. So there is a script somewhere. Maybe. What is the script? Who has written it? Can we read it? Who is decoding it? There is something happening. I remember years ago whenever we had a victory in space, and after all the United States is a great democracy, with great scientists, and liberal scientists, but whenever we had a kind of victory almost the same week an air tragedy occurred. Why?

HEFFNER: You see some, some hand, some mysterious hand. You call it a script.

WIESEL: At least let us say there is a mystery there. Now the author of that mystery, I don’t know who that is. If I’m a believer, I would say of course it’s God. If not, I would say it’s destiny. But the recent mystery evolved and we are forced more and more to confront that mystery.

HEFFNER: And the message, the meaning of the script that has been written?

WIESEL: Oh, to me, the message is clear. The message is that we are coming closer and closer to the brink. To the abyss. We know that the abyss is there. For the first time we have that knowledge. That means we know that it is enough now for one superpower to make a mistake and the abyss will occur. It would be not only before us but it would be in us. Maybe it already is in us.


HEFFNER: But if you, you who believe so strongly in education, in pointing attention, in calling attention to that which we must know about, must be wary about, you focus on the possibility of war or of accident related to war. What about the other risks that we take that are not necessarily related to space, using space as a means of attaining military prowess? The potential in our age of science of destroying ourselves.

WIESEL: Oh, there I think technologically we have made great progress. Medicine. I think we have made tremendous progress. How many people are we saving ever year? And that is, of course more of a war thing, it is justifying our endeavors. But what do we do with the, years that are left and given to a person? Do we make them richer? I’ve been thinking about it. On the other hand I must also say I’m satisfied with the very fact that these years are offered to human beings. A minute of life is more important than all the books about life.

HEFFNER: A minute of what life? What kind of life? Which is a question that I believe you have asked at times.

WIESEL: But still at that point I will say any life. Whether that life is being spent correctly or not is not for me to decide. I am not God nor his messenger.

HEFFNER: Are you speaking as a survivor when you say that? Any moment of life?

WIESEL: Oh, I speak as I. And I am, of course, I am a survivor. I’m a Jew. I’m an American. I’m a French writer. I’m a teacher. It’s all together. The “I” is the sum total of the human being. But there is no doubt to me, anyway, that life is sacred. Death is not. And therefore I must sanctify life by respecting the life of the other. And I repeat, any life is worthier, is holier than all the books about holiness or about life.

HEFFNER: You say any life. I come to this question that you address yourself to through this other, through this other means. Through concern that we are increasingly, increasingly, less concerned about others and more and more concerned in this era of progress and profit with our own well-being. And I think of your phrase when we spoke last. The maniacs of murder. You spoke about those who were putting people into the death camps and bringing about their death directly. You spoke most importantly, it seemed too me, about others who stood around indifferently. And I wondered whether you feel that that is increasingly a theme in our own times?

WIESEL: Oh, more and more. I mean that has become my theme for the last seven years. I have the feeling that everything I do is a variation on the same theme. I’m trying to pull the alarm and say, don’t be indifferent. Simply because I feel that indifference now is the name of evil. Evil we know more or less what it is. It’s dictatorship. It’s murder. It’s famine. It’s disease. But indifference to disease, indifference to famine, indifference to dictator, somehow it’s here and we accept it. And I always felt that the opposite of culture is not ignorance. It is indifference. And the opposite of faith is not atheism. Again, it’s indifference. And the opposite of morality is not immorality. It’s again indifference. And we don’t realize how indifferent we are simply because we cannot not be a little bit indifferent. We cannot think all the time of all the people who die. If while I sit with you I would really, really see and I try to see the children who die now while we talk in Ethiopia, we wouldn’t be able to talk, you and I. We would have to tear off this microphone and go and do something. Or go and take a plane and go there. If we were to think of all the people who are being oppressed in how many jails in South Africa and Chile and probably Nicaragua, too, and so many others, the refuseniks, the dissidents, the Jews, the non-Jews in so many prisons. We wouldn’t be able to continue to try to be logical and rational.

HEFFNER: Hasn’t that been the argument that has been offered to rebut your cry for concern and attention? Attention must be paid. This is what you’ve said for so many years now. And it seems to me there have been those who have replied to you, we couldn’t go from A to B. We couldn’t sit here today. We couldn’t go on to tomorrow if we were as concerned as you are with the manifestations of evil.


WIESEL: I think we could. After all, that’s what I was trying to say now was asking the question. You know we are teachers. You know that first of all we must ask the question. That is not the real answer, but that is the beginning of an answer. That we must do with what we have and with what we are. The proper thing. I must do it as a teacher. So must you. I must do it as a writer. So must you. A millionaire does not have to write books in order to save people from hunger. He must give money. A general must not come to television stations and talk about education or about literature. He must do something else. Which means we can’t stay very well here and try to do our work. And remain honest, decent intellectuals.

HEFFNER: You know there’s a question that I have and it’s …I think my wife would say to me it’s a very naive, foolish question. Don’t bother this great man with it, but I feel I must. Maybe it’s banal. Are we less concerned, more indifferent today? Has the nature of human nature, and I asked you this on the other program, has it changed so that if we were to look back, if. we were to look back to the prophets, would we find in Biblical times more concern, more awareness, that no man is an island unto himself?

WIESEL: Oh, no. Then the prophets were a minority. Now we have no prophets. But they were always a minority. The difference between then and now is that we come after the prophets which means they have already sensitized the human being in us. But furthermore, we live in an age of communication. We know. In those times, I think they spoke about it then, Plato and the prophets were contemporaries. And they didn’t know about one another. To me it seems incredible. Lao-tze and Gabyal Kypolet… they were contemporaries and they didn’t know. Now whatever is being said on one continent can be heard on the other. And therefore the great spirits of philosophy, of poetry, of literature, arts, music, they can actually dialogue with one another right away. Through satellites. Now we know if a child dies in South Africa. I know. Then it would take ten years to know. Now I know. And there are no more excuses.

HEFFNER: But you know, I more than half expected that I would say that. That I would talk about the communications revolution. And talk about our capacity to communicate one with the other. And that you could say in turn what do we say to each other. Though, what is the importance of those words, words, words? And even of those thoughts that we communicate? That’s why I wondered. Progress. What does it mean? Do you think the words they uttered, minority or not, in touch with each other or not, in Biblical, ancient times, were qualitatively different, better than today, what we say to each other?

WIESEL: Oh, they were so much better. Whatever I have to say today the words are not mine. I take them from them. Even today in my classes or in my works, I take from the prophets. I take from the ancient masters. Last semester I was teaching Jephthah’s Daughter. Jephthah and his daughter, the judge in Israel who killed his daughter, and they compared it to Euripides and Iphigenia. After all, nothing that I could say could come even close to the intensity, to the beauty, let alone the truth of a prophet or an ancient philosopher in Greece.

HEFFNER: Do I understand then that you feel that those words and those thoughts are, comparatively speaking, more better understood, accepted, integrated to the way we as a people in the 1980’s function? Really live our lives?

WIESEL: Oh, I feel they are here. They are here as the mountains are here. As the clouds are here. As the air is here. And we integrate ourselves in them. If they could survive 3,000 years, that means that there is something in their presence, in their survival. Almost in their immortality. And it’s a privilege for us students to be part of their landscape.

HEFFNER: Yes. But you’re not so certain that we’ll survive.

WIESEL: I’m not so sure. Unless again, unless we shake up ourselves and we get out of our indifference. I think the planet is in danger.

HEFFNER: You know when we spoke last time, and it wasn’t that long after Bitburg and in the period since we spoke, you were quoted as saying, talking about anti-Semitism, the rise of anti-Semitism, you were quoted as saying, you thought there was more indeed. You said you felt it more. It almost seemed after Bitburg that there were more people who were willing to express openly to you with no secret. Even to make threats upon you. How do you explain that?


WIESEL: Oh, I think it opened gates. They were feeling self­hate and feeling self-generosity suppressed in people and whenever an event occurs, a public event, which involves after all the highest office in the land, there is like a catalyst. It removes the obstacle. It removes the mask. And people speak the way they want to speak. And therefore, the anti-Semite became more anti-Semitic. At the same time the good person became better. That is not new. You know even during the war. What I have seen during the war taught me a very important lesson. That tragedies do not change people. They simply deepen the being in them. The good guy did not become bad. The bad did not become good. What happened was that the good became better. And the bad became worse.

HEFFNER: And in numbers? What do you think about the bad and the good?

WIESEL: The numbers still … but I’m … doesn’t really matter that much, the numbers. I am not so sure one person again could make a difference. Again it is something that I have learned. One person can make a difference. I have seen it so often. We had a conference in Washington which – I helped organize. Called the Courage to Care. And I wanted to ,know why did some people, Christians, why did they try to risk their lives simply because they wanted to save a human life. A Jew. Why did they have the courage to care? And then I realized that although there was a machinery, that machinery equaled to… God’s. In spite of all that it was possible for a man, a woman to stop that machinery for at least one second. For one person. And save that person.

HEFFNER: But you know it occurs to me when you say what you do about the good becoming better or revealing their goodness and the bad revealing their evil it’s so strange coming from you a teacher, an educator, who must believe somehow in changing people. What’s the relationship?

WIESEL: Let me tell you my story. This might be the best story I have. I have repeated the-story in two of my books, the story of the just man who came to a wicked city. And let’s call it Sodom. And that just man wanted to change and save Sodom. He was young, energetic, dynamic. So he knew what to do. He came to that city and he had – and he went from street to street, from house to house, shouting to people do not kill, do not murder, do not cheat. Don’t be hypocrites. Don’t be indifferent because your life is at stake. In the beginning people listened because after all how many just men came to Sodom? He was entertainment. But then they stopped listening. And years went by. Many years went by. And one day a child stopped him in the street and said, poor teacher, why do you go on shouting? Don’t you see it’s for nothing? And then he said yes. Then why do you shout? He said, I’ll tell you why. In the beginning I was convinced that if I were to shout loud enough I would change them. Now I know I will not. But if I shout louder and louder it is because I don’t want them to change me.

HEFFNER: …(laughter)… The just man as an entertainment. Do you think that’s true in our times, too?

WIESEL: Oh, true, always true. The prophets were laughed upon. And Socrates surely was ridiculed. And the poets, you know the jesters in the Middle Ages. Well, I think it’s true today, too. Because those people who live comfortably, they don’t want to approach a serious problem other than as a problem of entertainment.

HEFFNER: When you wrote the piece you wrote about the television series on the holocaust. Is that what you meant? Your concern that that nightmare had become an entertainment?


WIESEL: Absolutely. It became a trivialized experience. Entertainment. Because you know very well it had to be cut twelve minutes each segment for the commercials and therefore the laughter had to be in its place and the tears in their place. That’s not it. But the main thing that I really objected to then was not only that, the reduction, the diminishing process of the experience, I objected to thee fact that it was presented as a documentary. Had it been presented simply as a show, well I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would not have criticized it since I really don’t like to criticize. I like to celebrate. Whenever I write a review of a book, it must be to celebrate. Why should I be the one to mete out punishment to a writer or to an artist, to a poet.

HEFFNER: In fact that’s why I’ve asked you some of the questions I have because I know you like to celebrate. And I wondered if I could get behind the celebration to see the areas… well, in fact the last time we spoke, in of course the area of potential of nuclear destruction, you said that you were pessimistic. Generally, though, you maintain a very, very different approach to life. You do celebrate.

WIESEL: Well, it’s hard to celebrate life. How can I oppose death if not by celebrating life? The thing… there is a very beautiful saying in Talmudic literature that in our weakness we can celebrate a strength. Because a weakness passes. A strength does not. One minute before I die I am immortal. And therefore when the killer kills, he kills immortality.

HEFFNER: Mr. Wiesel, I… in the few minutes that we have remaining, and I always find myself in the position that when you have said something akin to what you just a moment ago said, I don’t know how I can go on. I mean I don’t know how I can move to another subject. So I’m not moving to another one, but going back and asking about the… well, Bhopal. Again Challenger. Again the ease with which we accept in the name of physical progress wealth, power, our society’s involvements in biological, chemical, scientific experiments that can endanger others. Do you have any strong feelings about that? I know you’re impressed with the development of science. But there must be a cost. And I wonder what you see as that cost, that price?

WIESEL: Well, the cost is the lack of ethical concerns. Before we came on the show we spoke about – you know, you are going to call a conference on liberty in July. I would suggest you had a conference about the ethical, about the ethical need in culture today. Ethical culture with ethical needs for culture. Or for intellectual endeavors. I would, for instance, use all the influence that I have, and you have more than I, that any university and every university should have compulsive courses in humanities. For medical schools. For schools of engineering. For law schools. They need… they must know. The lawyers should know why they defend people from going to jail. Why liberty is important. The doctors should know why life is sacred. And engineers should know why comfort is important for the other human being.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that that’s teachable?

WIESEL: It is teachable. It is teachable — not maybe in the long run, but the attempt must be made. Surely it is better that the doctor reads a few books. And he goes to a few plays. And he reads a few poems under the guidance of a good teacher. An inspiring teacher. It’s truly better to read books than not to read books. To think of a culture than not to think of a culture. To absorb morality or at least examples of morality. Or immorality. In the examples of immorality in a class become examples of morality. It’s better than not.

HEFFNER: Have you found that the teachings, your teachings, about the Holocaust have moved, and this is… we’re coming back to the same subject again, have moved children of darkness and made of them children of light?


WIESEL: Absolutely. You know we have talked only a few times and I rarely speak about the Holocaust. I write little about it now because so many others do and it’s perfect. It’s good. But I can testify that when a child or even a grown-up when they enter the world of that kind of literature, they emerge. They are no longer the same. That I can tell you. And I have seen categories there even. Of course, a person who does not care about humanity and only cares about machines doesn’t read this literature. And if he or she reads, it doesn’t matter. But I have seen children… what it did to them. It changed their lives. I have seen adults. It changed their lives. You know who else reads this kind of literature? You know who else reads this kind of literature? Cancer patients. Strange. I get many letters from cancer patients. Because they too, they feel they’re doomed. They are in a universe from which there is no way out. And they find something in this approach. In this possibility of hope.

HEFFNER: You remain a possibilist. Even with your involvement with the prophets who in a sense weren’t.

WIESEL: Whatever. But I think of Camus who said, you know, the choice sometimes is between being a smiling pessimist and a weeping optimist.

HEFFNER: You’ve made your choice.

WIESEL: Sometimes.

HEFFNER: Let me, we have I think less than a minute left. Were you pleased particularly when you were chosen to receive the Medal of Liberty as one of the naturalized Americans who enjoy the statue and all that it stands for?

WIESEL: Yes. Really of the things that have happened to me this is a moment of joy and gratitude because I owe something to this country. And I think all of us immigrants and especially Jews, but not only Jews, Italians, Irish, Chinese, we owe something to this country. And I felt that this would be the opportunity to say certain words. Words of gratitude.

HEFFNER: Elie Wiesel, I do appreciate your joining me again. Thank you so such for being here on THE OPEN MIND.

WIESEL: It’s good being with you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. And since Elie Wiesel is always such an extraordinary person to watch and to listen to, next week on many of these stations we’ll rebroadcast for you his earlier OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, if you would share your thoughts about this program, please do write to me in care of this station. And as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Richard Loundsbury Foundation; the M. Weiner foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; Mr. and Mrs. Laurence A. Wein; Pfizer Incorporated; and THE NEW YORK TIMES Company Foundation.