Elie Wiesel

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

VTR Date: March 9, 1993

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”
VTR: 3/9/93

HEFFNER: 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 largest. 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. Today our dialogue will focus on the singular question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

And Elie, it does seem to me that that’s a question that perhaps is not understood too well by a good many people in our times. And I wanted to begin today our dialogue by asking you what it means. What does that mean to you, that question?

WIESEL: It is actually a question that Cain asked of God, having killed Abel. And he says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the answer, of course, is “We are all our brothers’ keepers.” Why? Either we see in each other brothers, or we live in a world of strangers. I believe that there are no strangers in God’s creation. There are no strangers in a world which becomes smaller and smaller. Today I know why it happens, whatever happens anywhere in the world. Since I know, how can I not transform that knowledge into responsibility? So the key word is “responsibility.” I f I am responsible for things that happen far away, because they are not happening far away. That means I must keep my brother.’

HEFFNER: But you posit this upon knowledge, knowing what is happening. And it seems to me despite the fact that we live in an age of rapid, immediate communications, we know so little about what is happening to our brothers.

WIESEL: Correct. But we also know too much. The trouble really is that we know too much. No, let me correct myself. We are informed about too many things. Whether information is transformed in knowledge, is a different story, a different question. But you are in the world of communication. You know very well that nothing has caught the fantasy, the imagination of the world these last years as communication has. So many radio stations, so many television stations, so many newspapers, so many talk shows. It’s always more and more information which is being fed. And I’m glad that these things are happening, because I think people should be informed. However, let us say a tragedy takes place. For a day we are all glued to the station. Three days later we are still glued. A week later another tragedy occurs, and then the first tragedy is overshadowed by the next one. What happened to the information there? It is still stored, but yet we don’t act upon it. Because we are called upon, we are summoned by current events.

HEFFNER: Elie, I hear what it is that you’re saying, and I believe I understand it. There seems, therefore, however – and tell me if I’m wrong – to be almost an inevitability about what it is that you are describing, because certainly inevitably we will increase, perfect the means of communications.

WIESEL: I would like to be able to say, to say to my students that there are so many things in the world that solicit your attention, that command your attention and your involvement, choose any. I really don’t mind where that particular event is taking place. But I would like my students to be involved in that event or in any other event. Now, today for instance they will say, “I go to zone A, and then I go to zone B.” But as long as zone A has not been covered fully, as long as it is a human problem, I don’t think we can abandon it. Then, student A will go to student B. Student B will go to student C. But all the areas must be covered. I would not want to live in a world really today in which a person or a community, because of color, because of religion, because of ethnic origin, or because of social conditions, a person or a group should feel totally neglected or abandoned. There must be someone who speaks to and for that group.

HEFFNER: Yes, but it seems to me that there are two messages that you’ve just…

WIESEL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) More than two, I’ll grant. First, and as I was listening to you I was thinking of what it is I say to my sons. I don’t think they believe me. That if I were to start all over again I believe that I would embrace the kind of religious involvement that you have embraced all your life, and possibly for one reason, that I would then observe a Sabbath, whatever the day. I would observe the human personal need to focus on thoughts and ideas, to focus somewhere at that point in the universe where you can do something with your thinking rather than find myself so scattered, so incapable of sitting down because time is not available, there is so much in the world. And I thought rather that you were saying that that’s what you indicate to your students, “Focus, focus.”

WIESEL: Yes, but there is one difference. We have talked quite a lot and we are going to talk even more. But I have never spoken about religion. Religion is a very private matter. It’s between me and God. If God cares, all right. If not, then do I care? But it’s very personal. I never speak about religion. I speak about humanity, about culture, about human concerns, about civilization, about literature, philosophy. These are, these are the fields that attract me. What I do with God really only God knows and should know perhaps. Now, why religions separate people. It’s a pity because in the beginning I thought that a religious feeling, a kind of religiosity would bring people together, but it didn’t. So I speak about other things. However, the theme in itself is the one which you just mentioned. I would like to believe really that it is possible to help. Now, these are nice words, I know. But what else do we have? We have words and sometimes we try to act upon them.

HEFFNER: But let’s go back to these words so that I understand what it is that you were saying. We talked about communications. We talked about the world that is, perhaps, in my terms, not in yours, too much with us. So much with us that there is no time to focus on the needs that we began by talking about. Now, how do you deal with that, and how do you help your students deal with that?

WIESEL: I mentioned Cain and Abel. Why did Cain kill Abel? The reason really is not because he was jealous; the reason is according to the text that we read and comment upon, Cain spoke to Abel, to a younger brother, and he told him of his pain, of his abandonment, of his solitude that God didn’t want to accept his offering. And Abel didn’t listen. So the first act really among brothers was a lack of communication. I would call it presence. I would like my students to be present whenever people need a human presence. And what I say to my students is really very few things. There are very few emotions that I can communicate. One is, look, I cannot suffer for someone else. I wish I could, by the way. People whom I love, I wish I could say, “I will suffer in your place.” I cannot. Nobody can. Nobody should. I can be present. And you, when you suffer, need a presence.

HEFFNER: Well, when you san “communicate,” you mean accept communication, don’t you?

WIESEL: Let’s say it’s to receive, too. That’s fine. To be able to give and to receive at the same time.

HEFFNER: Does it seem to you that we’re not listening, that we’re not listening to the world around us? That we’re so much involved in our individual pursuits?

WIESEL: Absolutely. I think as we are going closer to the end of the century and the millennium, the noise around us is deafening. People talk but nobody listens. People aren’t afraid of silence. Have you seen those youngsters and not-so-youngsters go around in the street with their Walkman on their ears? They don’t want to hear anything. They want to hear only their own music. Which is the same music, by the way, that they heard yesterday. It’s a kind of repetition of the same music which is deafening. People don’t want to hear the world. The world is, I think in need of being heard.

HEFFNER: Elie, I find that as I get older and older still, I…

WIESEL: I want you to get older and older.

HEFFNER: (Laughter) I so often find that I want to shut out, because I can’t focus on what needs to be focused on if I’m listening to everything. Now, that seems to me to be where we began in a sense.

WIESEL: Yes, but me too, of course. So often do I want to turn off everything and say, “Look, it’s easier to talk about Romeo and Juliet than to talk about what’s happening today anywhere in the world.” Naturally. Because there is a text and there is a story. It’s a story about…I can turn it in any direction I want really. You think that Romeo and Juliet is a story of love? It’s a story of hate. So whatever subject I discuss I can always turn it a way or two. I prefer to discuss Plato. Naturally. But we must open our eyes and…

HEFFNER: Yes again, but…And I don’t want to be a devil’s advocate here. I think I understand the subjective need not to feel that I am my brother’s keeper. The subjective need to shut out, not to hear, the pain that is felt on the part of…

WIESEL: You couldn’t take it. Sure.

HEFFNER: What do we do? Can we both attend to our own needs and the various needs of our family and friends and still extend the notion of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” way beyond Abel to the far point of the world?

WIESEL: Perhaps we cannot, but we must. And because we cannot we must. But Kant used to say, “We can, therefore we must.” I know it is too much. Even in our own city, New York. There is so much hate and there is so much mistrust and distrust that you wonder what can reach these people, who live together, who must live together, after all can live together. Where do you begin? Now, I feel very strongly always about the person who needs me. I don’t know who that person is, but I hope that his is one person who needs me. If the person needs me, I somehow must think of that person more than about myself. Why? Because, you know, it’s my life. I remember there were times when I needed people, and they were not there. If there is a governing precept in my life, that is really the main precept: if somebody needs me, I must be there.

HEFFNER: When I ask the question that we began with, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – and I asked it frequently as I traveled around this country and as I do television programs – again I receive a blank stare, and it obviously, that stare, comes from people for whom the concept of being my brother’s keeper is, if not anathema, at least terribly foreign. More so now, do you think?

WIESEL: More so, because it involves us more deeply, because it goes further. If I say, “Yes,” what am I doing about it? Then it really goes further than that. What does it mean? Who is my brother? It’s a definition. Who is my brother? Any person in the street is my brother? Is a person in Somalia my brother? Is a person in Armenia my brother? Come on. If I say, “My brother,” what do you mean, “My brother?” Have I seen them? Have I met them? So of course it could be poetic expression which means very little. But if you say that there are people in the world who need a brother, I will say, then I would like to be that brother. I don’t succeed. I cannot. I am really only an individual, I represent nobody. I am alone, as you are alone. What can we do? We can be the brother to one person and another person, ten people, a hundred people in our whole life. But does it mean that we are brothers to everybody in the world? We cannot be. So then if we say at least we can tell a story about a brother who is looking for a brother and finds one. I think that’s quite enough.

HEFFNER: But Elie, you know, I went back last night to look at the transcript of a, I remember in 1986 when we celebrated here in the City of New York where we do this program today, celebrated the anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. It was Liberty Weekend. And I had asked you to be the keynote speaker and you so kindly agreed.

WIESEL: I can’t say no to you, you know that.

HEFFNER: Good. I’ll remember that, Elie. But I was so impressed going back with being struck once more with seemingly a different answer to the question that you just gave. You seemed to be saying, “Yes, for all of those who need, I am my brother’s keeper.” You weren’t talking about singling out individuals. You were providing that kind of sense of connection with all sufferers in this world. But surely that’s what you mean more.

WIESEL: Yes, but at that time I spoke about those who are in prison.


WIESEL: And they were in prison. They have priorities. They are my priority. Today for instance, surely I would speak about the marvelous lady in Burma, in Rangoon who is under house arrest who got the Nobel Prize, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She is my sister. That’s no problem. I am her brother. And I fight, and I go, and I do whatever I can, naturally. But if I don’t have the names and the figures and the people who are in prison there, who are in such a position that they need me immediately, urgently, then of course I go farther.

HEFFNER: Yes, but doesn’t that, aren’t we experiencing a kind of isolationism, a new kind of isolationism today? “Please, I can’t solve these problems. Don’t burden me with them. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

WIESEL: Dick, my good friend, today brothers become strangers. How do you expect strangers to become brothers? People who live in the same country today are strangers to one another. Take Europe. What’s happening in Germany. What’s happening all over Europe, by the way when the reactionary, exclusionary forces rule today. Because they do not realize that neighbors are close to one another. They see in each other a threat, a source of suspicion, the conquerer; not a brother. So of course today the world is, I think it’s a historical phenomenon which is worrisome. But whenever we reach the end of a millennium, things are happening, usually bad things.

HEFFNER: Elie, what’s the scriptural response to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

WIESEL: Oh, absolutely. It begins, you know, how it is actually written…actually it’s a dialogue, it’s a theater, it’s a scenario. Cain kills Abel. And god says, “Hi, hey. Good morning. How are you?” “All right.” He said, “By the way, have you seen, where is your brother?” “I don’t know.” “What do you mean, you don’t know?” he said. “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” And then God says, you know, comme au theatre, you say in French, God says, “Come on. I hear the blood of your brother coming from the bowels of the earth. And you want to cheat me.” The whole thing is a little bit silly. What do you mean? God didn’t know where Abel was? And God wants to play a game. If he says, “I did know, I know.” It’s simply a very beautiful story which I always like to interpret that it is possible unfortunately throughout history for two brothers to be brothers and yet to become the victim and/or assassin of the other. However, I go one step further and I try to teach then my students that we learn another lesson: Whoever kills, kills his brother.

HEFFNER: Kills his brother or kills some part of himself?

WIESEL: You know, it’s also possible because I, it’s also possible as I can interpret it, I could, that Cain was only one person, Cain and Able were only one person. Cain killed Abel in Cain.

HEFFNER: But only the notion or the question that we’ve been dealing with certainly is extended by many, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to more than life and death but to the means by which we create or help create sustenance for others. Shelter, food. The Darwinian response to “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is, “Of course not. If you try to be, if you pretend to be, you are interfering with natural selection. You’re interfering with evolution.” How do we build again upon the more ancient notion that indeed we are our brothers’ keepers in many, many, many, many, many ways?

WIESEL: But remember again in the ancient story, Cain was not his brother’s keeper. He killed him. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But the question was asked by God.

WIESEL: but the question was good.

HEFFNER: …put before him so that his response was…

WIESEL: That rally means that the question is always better than the answers. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WIESEL: But it should, and today…

HEFFNER: I know that’s your specialty: questions.

WIESEL: I love questions, true. But because there is quest in question. I love that. But today I would like to put a face on words. When I say words I will see a face. When you speak about, let’s say, my brother’s keeper, I see faces of those, sometimes faces of people I knew or I know, or people I’ve just seen this morning. Crossing the street and there is an old man with his hand outstretched. Now, am I his keeper?

HEFFNER: Are you, Elie?

WIESEL: Now, I must tell you that I, when I see that, I always feel strange. Because on one hand I know, I know, my reason tells me, come on, I k now, if I give him a dollar he will go and buy alcohol. But then I say to myself, “So what? Who am I to decide what he will do with it, with the money that I give him?” I cannot see an outstretched hand and not put something there. It’s impossible. I know sometimes it’s a weakness. I want to feel better. Not to feel bad about it, but I cannot.

HEFFNER: The other day that happened with me, and I looked away. And I know that we who live in New York look away. We’ve learned to look away. And I looked away and walked past this person. Suddenly I stopped and I turned around and I walked back to him.


HEFFNER: I don’t know why I was so determined to walk by. What need? And for me to say to myself, and I must have been saying, “I’m not his keeper.” What are we to do about the giant social problems in our country if we don’t respond, “Yes, indeed we are our brother’s keeper?” You talked about communications before. If we don’t listen by providing, presumably our brother will rise up and strike us down.

WIESEL: Or we would strike him down. Who are we? Children of Cain or children of Abel?

HEFFNER: What’s your answer?

WIESEL: You know, in my tradition, you know, there is a marvelous way out. We are neither. W are neither the children of Cain nor the children of Abel. There was a third son that Adam and Eve had afterwards called Seth. And we are the children of Seth. Which means you can be both.

HEFFNER: Is that a cop-out, Elie Wiesel?

WIESEL: (Laughter) No. I say that we are really always oscillating between the temptation for evil and an attraction for, I hope, goodness. And it’s up to us to choose. We choose. Ultimately we are free to choose.

HEFFNER: Don’t you think that in our country at this time we have become, and maybe we’re moving away from that, less concerned with those who suffer, less concerned, have less compassion for those?

WIESEL: Our homeless, the sick, the children, the old, the dispossessed. Absolutely. Again, can I help more than a person? Can you? You can speak to more than one person. It’s what you are doing all your life, Dick. But can we really help more than the people around us? I wish I could. I can’t. I try. Believe me, I try. I go around the world, I travel, and whenever I hear something I try to go there and bear witness. That’s my role, to bear witness at least. To say, “I’ve seen. I was there.” Sometimes it inspires others to do what I am doing. More often than not, it doesn’t.

HEFFNER: We have a tradition at least in this country, a great tradition, in this century which is fast coming to an end, of extending ourselves through our wealth, through our material well-being. That tradition was set aside for some time. Do you think we will recapture that?

WIESEL: I hope so. I hope that there will be enough students and teachers and writers and poets and communicators and, to bring back certain values. For instance, I’m terribly upset now that we cannot open our doors to the Haitians. How many are there? Those people who are the modern boat people of this age? I think they should be allowed to come in here. Political or not, it doesn’t matter. If a father cannot feed his children then his human rights are violated. And we are such a rich country, such a wealthy society, why not? And about other people as well. I would open our doors and show that we still have compassion.

HEFFNER: Elie, we’ve reached the end of our time for today’s dialogue. There will be many more. And I guess we should come back to the extent to which we believe that we must extend ourselves in this way by offering asylum, by offering our wealth and our resources. We’ll come back and do many more dialogues. Thanks very much for joining me again today, Elie.

WIESEL: Thank you.