Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel on the Nature of Human Nature

VTR Date: August 7, 1985

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


VTR: AUGUST 7, 1985

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I had the honor and the pleasure some months back in talking with today’s guest on THE EDITOR’S DESK. There, however, I had to share him with two colleagues and three commercial breaks. And I’ve so much looked forward to this day when for much longer I might intellectually visit with Elie Wiesel, the distinguished teacher, philosopher, historian of the Holocaust. Mostly I want to ask him about indifference. About the carelessness that informs so much of human history, human behavior. On THE EDITOR’S DESK Elie Wiesel said that at the end of World War II in Paris in 1945, again after Auschwitz and Buchenwald he had asked himself the question, why? I asked him whether by now he has discovered the answer. His reply…no. I confess to you that all the questions that I had asked then, they are still open today. I haven’t found any answer. I’ve found components to answers… I’ve found, for instance, that what allowed the situation of absolute cruelty to develop was the indifference of so many people. They let it happen. There were a few maniacs of murder and all around there were others who knew and somehow let it happen. Therefore, in most of my books I denounce indifference to evil as much as I try to denounce evil. And that’s the subject, Mr. Wiesel, that I’d really like to begin with today and ask whether that was a comment about the nature of human nature.

WIESEL: At certain times, of course. Some people need indifference.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, need?

WIESEL: In order to go on living. A person who is always sensitive, always responding, always listening, always ready to receive someone else’s pain, how can one live? Indifference, then, is close to forgetting. One must forget that we die; if not we wouldn’t live. However, there is so much forgetfulness, so much indifference today that we must fight it. We must fight for the sake of our own future. Is this the nature of human beings? It’s part of the nature.

HEFFNER: It’s so interesting to me that you should take such a generous position as indeed you always have. But it is not a position seemingly of anger. How come?

WIESEL: Oh, if I had anger I think I would have been crushed by it. It’s like hate. Hate destroys the hater much more than the hated. There was so many reasons after the war and since the war for people such as myself to develop anger and to arm anger that it makes no sense.

HEFFNER: It makes no sense, but it is human.

WIESEL: It’s also human to fight anger. So I have to choose between two options of humanity. And I would rather choose this one. Mind you, if I had felt that it would lead me somewhere, it would give me an answer, it would give humanity an answer, maybe I would have tried it. But maybe it’s because of my weakness. I was afraid of anger. But I never felt hate, nor have I ever felt real anger.

HEFFNER: In THE FIFTH SUN, the newest volume, the newest novel I should say, the newest volume actually is the compilation of the NIGHT DAWN and DAY that B’nai B’rith put out. In the novel, THE FIFTH SUN, there seems also to be that conflict. I should say also. You haven’t stated a conflict, but there seemed to be a conflict…

WIESEL: Oh, there is a conflict. Of course there is a conflict. After the war the Germans were afraid. They weren’t afraid of the Americans. Nor were they afraid of the French. Or the Russians, yes. But above all, they were afraid of the Jews. Somehow they felt that the Jews would come back and avenge the blood that was shed. And it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen. There were Jews in Germany in the DP camps. And there were no acts of vengeance. There was no killing. I remember in 1945 when the war ended for me, April 11, the Americans came into Buchenwald. I was terribly weak and sick and alone and desperate and numb. We hadn’t eaten for so many days. And since April 5th we were close to death, literally, because the Germans were trying to evacuate the camp. They would take out 10,000 people a day. Ship them off to the unknown. And for some reason, really, I don’t know why, we the…block remained behind. Then the Americans came in and I remember there were some Russian war prisoners. They seized American jeeps and they ran into a neighboring town of Weimar and they did commit acts of vengeance. This…for my friends and myself…with the Americans there…I’ll never forget these Americans. I remember there were some Black soldiers. And these were the first Black soldiers that I’d seen in my whole life. And they were crying. They were crying with such anger. They were angry at the killers much more than we were. And they were throwing whatever they had, you know, K-rations and bread and chocolate and we didn’t know what they were. What we wanted to do first before eating is to have a religious service. And we had a religious service. So instead of going and committing act of anger and wrath and bloodshed, we prayed to a God who had abandoned us. To this day, I don’t understand why we did it.

HEFFNER: Do you understand why God abandoned you?

WIESEL: Oh no. Of course I…I won’t understand it. I refuse to understand it.

HEFFNER: Why do you say you refuse to understand it?

WIESEL: There can be no reason. If there is a reason it’s the wrong one.

HEFFNER: You mean then that God did not abandon you?

WIESEL: Oh, I think he did. But I don’t know why.

HEFFNER: In terms then of what you felt and what you say so many Jews in the camps did feel, how do you relate that to the attitudes of contemporary Israel? To the Palestinians, for instance? To people Israel considers her enemies?

WIESEL: I was in Israel in ’67 during the war…(inaudible)…but I felt I had to be there. I felt I had to be there because the three weeks preceding the war, maybe you remember, were such intensity. We were all convinced that Israel would lose the war. And therefore I went there. And I will not forget, I don’t want to forget the human way in which the Israeli soldiers treated the enemies. They were crying. I was in the desert and I saw how Israeli soldiers gave their water to the Egyptians. There is no hate in the Israeli soldier.

HEFFNER: That was true in 1967. Do you think it’s true today?

WIESEL: I think it’s true today as well, with some exceptions. Unfortunately, there is now a small segment in Israel which is racist…which embarrasses me…as a Jew. I don’t know whether they and I belong to the same people, whether they and I claim kinship with the same tradition. Judaism can be racist. I believe the Jewish tradition is one of compassion…must be one of compassion. But it’s not Israel. It’s a small segment. Israel as such, I believe, is still human and humanely inspired.

HEFFNER: Mr. Wiesel, there are reports that that segment, though small, is getting larger and larger. Do you feel that those reports are accurate, though? Hateful, perhaps, but accurate?

WIESEL: I don’t know. I have not been to Israel for years, so I don’t know. I hope they are not. And if they are, I hope that they are only a passing mood. It would be a terrible blow to…not only to Israel as the political entity that it is, but to the history of Israel…to have lived 3,500 years and to come to that conclusion, that we have to try racism. And there is no other option other than violence, and to see everyone else as an enemy? That is not Judaism.

HEFFNER: Do you think that perhaps Israel’s relation to the United States might be fostering that? In so many of our own travails there have been so many people who have said that Israelis could do it. The Israeli soldiers could do this or that. They would know how to handle the enemy.

WIESEL: How do they handle the enemy? What do the Americans think the Israelis do when they handle the enemy? There is an occupation of territories and I’m always on the side of the humble. But I’m a traumatized person for the reasons you mentioned yourself. I’m traumatized. I cannot believe that the Israeli occupier is just another occupier. Impossible.

HEFFNER: But when you say that you’re always on the side of the humble, do you mean on the side of the weak?

WIESEL: On the side of the defeated. Of the victim.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t, then, if someone were watching us today and Elie Wiesel says he is on the side of the defeated, the victim, say I can admire or I can embrace this man for the beauty in him, for his feelings, but I must turn for many practical reasons to another philosophy to survive?

WIESEL: I’m also for survival.

HEFFNER: You did survive.

WIESEL: Not only I did, my…personally it doesn’t really matter why…I survived, I don’t know why….I didn’t do anything for them. I swear to you. I was too young, I was too weak. I didn’t know why. I was never a man of initiative. I survived by chance. But because I survived by chance I have to give meaning to my survival. That’s really what I believe in. I don’t think I should speak about a miracle because there was no miracle. If God performed a miracle by saving some, that means he refused to perform miracles in condemning the others. I don’t go for that. So I’m for surviving. I want the Jewish people to survive. And I want all people to survive. Now I’m naïve in thinking that it’s possible to live in a Messianic era when people will live happily not at the expense of someone else’s unhappiness. But at least we must try.

HEFFNER: You say that is possible. And you smile.

WIESEL: I smile because you and I belong to the prophetic tradition. We have a past which goes very far. Josiah and Jeremiah. These were prophets. They were poets. Jeremiah was also a politician. A great politician. He suffered for it. But what we remembered is not his politics. We remember his poetry. And that goes for Isaiah and for Habakkuh, and all of the other prophets. We claim that tradition as our own, as our memory. Here is a tradition that becomes our memory. How can I not believe in it?

HEFFNER: But that memory now is fostered an protected an defended and expanded, too, let us not forget that, by those who have a somewhat different approach. Considerably a different approach from your own, in Israel.

WIESEL: I know. That’s not new. You know, we had zealots some 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. And they were a catastrophe. They were a catastrophe. Jerusalem was destroyed because of those zealots. I claim kinship with a master of Yochanan Ben Zakkai who left Jerusalem because he wanted to establish schools. And he did establish schools. And he was the pillar on which the Talmud has been built. And which kept us alive for 2,000 years. Now again, that doesn’t mean that I think that the Jewish people should simply read the Talmud and not have an army. They have an army. They need an army because we live in pragmatic conditions and circumstances. But without the Talmud and without the word, without language, without poetry, we would not have survived.

HEFFNER: Do you think that about Americans…not American Jews…about America generally? Would your same hope and aspirations about the fostering of that tradition of 3,500 years, would it relate to American so powerful and so much involved in the politics of survival vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, nuclear armament, etc.?

WIESEL: Yes I do. But I think of the United States and am overtaken by gratitude. That doesn’t mean I’m not critical. I am critical. But gratitude is a dominant feeling about it…that I haven in thinking of America. Number one, this nation has gone to war twice in its history to fight for other peoples’ freedoms…the First World War, the Second World War. Then after the wars the economic help, the billions of dollars that we have given to those poor countries ravaged, destroyed by the enemy. And even now what would the free world do without us? And they’re always ready to help. So I am grateful to this country. Where else really could a refugee such as myself by sitting with you and talking about history or about philosophy? On the other hand, I’m critical. I think for instance, what happened here during the war with regard to the Jewish tragedy is unforgivable. The indifference of the United States leadership to the suffering of the Jewish people in Europe is unforgivable.

HEFFNER: What do you think that indifference, as you call it, and that is the word that I started the program with, what is it due to? A lack of knowledge or a lack of information?

WIESEL: Oh no, knowledge was here.

HEFFNER: Then what?

WIESEL: I don’t know. People who were here tell me that there was so much anti-Semitism then. That somehow Roosevelt had to take it into account…he was afraid of acting too far in order not to antagonize the electorate. I am told that even the Congress was against immigration…the the newspapers who know the stories came in…even in the newspapers…did not play it up to sufficient degree. But all these reasons are practical reasons, and I do not accept them. When I know now and we knew it some 20-30 years ago already that Roosevelt and the military and political leadership and including the Jewish leadership of this country knew everything that was going on in Europe. In America they knew about Auschwitz in 1942. I who was in Hungary didn’t. And in 1944 when Hungarian Jews came to Auschwitz they didn’t know what it was. Had they known, many of us would have escaped. The Russians were 15 miles away. How can anyone explain that to me? I don’t know that. The knowledge was here. But somehow the knowledge did not become an ethical knowledge. It was one thing to know that Jews were being killed, and other thing to know that something had to be done for them. And these two zones were separate.

HEFFNER: Today, how separate are the zones for Americans? The zones when we think of Ethiopia? The zones when we think of other peoples who are suffering?

WIESEL: I think the American nation responds. When we saw the Ethiopian pictures on television, there was a response, a very powerful response in the United States. Not enough mind you because I think they should have taken American planes. The Air Force should have given a hundred airplanes to carry the food to…and doctors and teachers and builders, sociologists, anything to go and help these people. But still, the American, as an American, he or she helped. I know I was going around schools, high schools, asking children to give one dollar. And they gave in the thousands, gave dollars to the Ethiopian children. That was true about Biafra. It was true with the boat people. American people responded. Maybe it’s a guilt feeling. Maybe because in the Second World War the gates were closed. But now the boat people are being allowed in. The Hungarian refugees did come in.

HEFFNER: You know, I’d like to come back to this question about the nature of human nature, unless you were to tell me it will be whatever we make it. But given an absence of those who raise our consciousness, given simply a feat before us whether it is the destruction of the Jews, whether it is Auschwitz, Buchenwald…Whether it is what we heard during the war and before about what was happening…without prodding, what do you think you and I and most of the rest of us would do without the training, without the ethical training?

WIESEL: Yes, but what is ethical training? It’s teaching. We are teachers. We write, we speak, and we teach. That means we train other people. In order for us to be able to train, there’s only one, to me, one very important component, that’s memory. As long as we remember, we can train. And we can sensitize. I was teaching once at Yale for a year, and I remember I asked my first class, what is the opposite of literature?

HEFFNER: The opposite of literature?

WIESEL: And they all tried to give me answers, you know. Ignorance and so forth and vulgarity…(inaudible)…the opposite also is indifference because it is the opposite of everything else. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference. The opposite of culture is indifference. Now, therefore, the aim of literature is to sensitize. The aim of culture is to sensitize. The aim of television is to sensitize. So if we remember we can sensitize. If we don’t, then we are no longer sensitive either. And then…

HEFFNER: but you see, you describe and I feel compelled to ask you to prophesize.

WIESEL: I cannot…

HEFFNER: …your tradition of prophets, what would be your assumptions as to where we are going in terms of our sensitivity to suffering, in terms not of our indifference but of our devotion, our concern?

WIESEL: Prophets ceased to prophesize some 2,500 years ago. There are no longer prophets. Still if I had to foresee the future, I’d be terribly pessimistic. I’m pessimistic because of the nuclear threat and to me although I never compare anything to Auschwitz, nor do I compare Hiroshima to Auschwitz, you should never do that, but I think one is a consequence of the other. Auschwitz paved the way for Hiroshima.

HEFFNER: As a response?

WIESEL: Not as a response, as a possibility. It’s possible to kill a community of people. It’s possible. Now today there are so many nuclear weapons and fortunately for the moment the big powers, I think, are responsible. They won’t use them. But one day smaller nations will get hold of them, and we know they will. What then? Just imagine a Khomeini with nuclear powers. But he would use them right away. Not against Israel by the way, but against Iraq. Imagine Idi Amin ten years ago with nuclear weapons. That is really my fear. But at the same time I have the theory that something is happening in our country. It’s happening among the young people. A certain awareness, a moral awareness. So I’m oscillating between ultimate despair and necessary hope.

HEFFNER: Perhaps an unfair question. If you felt just precisely the opposite, would you tell me so?

WIESEL: Absolutely. I belong now to a generation…I don’t play with words anymore.

HEFFNER: So that your…this touch of optimism or hopefulness is genuine?

WIESEL: It is, of course. But it’s also an existential leap as you know.

HEFFNER: Seemingly.

WIESEL: I have no choice. I must because the despair is so strong I must fight it. In order to fight it, I must cling to some hope.

HEFFNER: That attitude…is that what you think produces progress, let’s say? That existential jump?

WIESEL: What do you call progress? Is it technological progress? I think our generation suffers from it. We go so far in technology that we remain behind in the morality of philosophy. Just to see the discrepancy between what we did in science and what we did in thought, in metaphysics, or even in poetry, art. So what is progress? My feeling, of course…progress must be translated in human terms, in words, in words of wisdom, compassion. And there we did not make much progress.

HEFFNER: Do you think that your words at the time, turning the clock back now, of Bitburg, of the President’s visit, your very very active…shall I…perhaps not political is not the word…but your intense ethical involvement in these questions…were they Wieselish or were they…do you in any way regret having moved from your study, your teacher…but having moved from your every day work at writing?

WIESEL: In a way, yes, because I told you before that I lost six weeks. For the first time in my life, I didn’t study nor did I write for six weeks. And now I have to catch up these six weeks.

HEFFNER: Which was the indulgence?

WIESEL: It’s too much because I realize the importance, the historic importance of the event, that we must do something. We must speak up. Because it was a watershed. And even today I think it was a watershed. And therefore we had to do something, but it didn’t help much. Still, a few people listened, a few people learned, a few people felt that now they must learn more. I don’t regret it.

HEFFNER: But you see, that’s why I ask, when I jokingly, and I have no right to joke about it, ask which is the indulgence. I really meant is the avoidance…had the avoidance of that kind of involvement been the indulgence, or was the activism the indulgence?

WIESEL: I understand you.

HEFFNER: Which way will you go now?

WIESEL: Oh, I go back to my study, to my writing. I am not good as an activist. It’s not my role.

HEFFNER: You were very good.

WIESEL: No, no. I’m not really. I’m not…not good for me.

HEFFNER: When you came into the study, into the studio, I shouldn’t say study. Maybe that’s a slip I should not make. It is clear to me that so many people remembered you. Not just as the author and as the historian of the Holocaust, as the moralist. As a person who took a very strong role at Bitburg.

WIESEL: Well I don’t regret it. But it’s really not something I like to do. I really like better to be with my students and my classroom and my study and read and read and read and write.

HEFFNER: Where is it written that you should be able to do what you want to do?

WIESEL: It’s not. I don’t. The fact is I’m sitting here speaking on television.

HEFFNER: Indeed. That’s what makes me wonder whether you have not felt some compulsion to do something more. To be involved more.

WIESEL: No, really. I would lie if I were to say I’ve felt a compulsion. I don’t take myself that seriously. Not in this respect. However, again, once I did it, I felt I had to do it right. Not to say things I would regret later. And I feel that I did not say anything that I regret now. I tried to endow every word that I said with a certain meaning which is mine, and with respect to other people’s words.

HEFFNER: I think not only do you show that respect, but I think the world shows you that respect, feels it very deeply as I do. And I want to thank you for joining me today, Elie Wiesel. And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”