Elie Wiesel … Beyond the Holocaust
VTR Date: March 1, 1987
Guest: Wiesel, Elie
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Elie Wiesel … Beyond the Holocaust”
Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is the 1986 Nobel Peace Laureate, Elie Wiesel, author, historian, witness, memory and conscience. The moral responsibilities of the private person, what they are, how they can be met, what must be done to make us all effectively aware of them, these things should inspire our discussion today. Now before on The Open Mind we have spoken about the carelessness that is, indeed, indifference. That means caring less about our fellow human beings than being human demands. But now we know, using Elie Wiesel’s words in his speech accepting the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, that we who enjoy freedom; and plenty are all survivors. And we, too, should know that every moment, as he said, “Is a moment of grace. Every hour an offering. Not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone, they belong to all those who need us desperately”.
Now then, do we share our blessings? How do we do it? How do we share our moments of grade? How do we address ourselves to those many moral responsibilities of a private person? What are the themes, the questions, the issues to which we must address ourselves today? And those are the questions that I would address to you, Mr. Wiesel. You know, when you were my guest at Liberty Conference back in the summer of 1986 when we celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, you gave a keynote address in which you said, you asked the question, “What about the sanctuary movement?” and you went on and said, “I must tell you that I feel sympathy for all those who fight for those refugees who try to come to the United States I’m not suggesting that we should break the law, I simply think that we should change the law and allow all those people from South America who need to be free, even economically free, to come in. A father who cannot feed his children is not free. A mother who cannot save her children is not free. We could give them that freedom and we are a great nation, we can afford that. We can afford to bring in more people and make more people free. Not elsewhere, but here”. Now that’s taking a yardstick of moral responsibility and setting it up against a contemporary political, social problem. Do you think we really can do that in very many such problems?
Wiesel: I think we could, at least, try. But we’re not even trying. The problem really is that there are so many situations that demand our attention. There are so many tragedies that need our involvement. Where do you begin? I mentioned the Sanctuary Movement because then we were somehow involved in the Sanctuary Movements struggle. But there are so many others. And there are still boat people. Sure there are still boat people looking for haven. The wars in Indochina and the war in Cambodia are despicable. Genocide and war of Pol Pot and there are still boat people looking for some refuge. Can’t we take them in?
Heffner: But when you ask that question, it’s wonderfully historically, Hebraic or Jewish to ask a question like that. You know the answer is that we have not. That the world has not. The very fact that you say there are still boat people would seem to indicate that we are careless about those lives.
Wiesel: We are careless. Somehow life has been cheapened in our own eyes. The sanctity of life, the sacred dimension of every minute of human existence is gone. It has to do with, I’m sure, many reasons. Violence, fear, hunger and thus we always come back to the problem of indifference. Somehow the indifference is what motivates so much carelessness.
Heffner: Do you think we … you said a moment ago, there are so many of these problems, there are so many demands upon our attention. Do you think that we, as human beings, in the 1980s, in this century, at this time, are mentally, physiologically, physically, morally equipped to deal with these many problems?
Wiesel: I think we are. Because now we know more than we did a century ago. Ifthings happen anywhere in the world, we know about them right away. And there is no excuse for us not to be involved in these problems. A century ago there was a war, and by the time the news of the war reached another place, the war was over. Now people die and the pictures of their dying are offered to you and to me while we are having dinner.
Heffner: If the moral imperative that you pose is one that seemingly is rejected in our time, why does Elie Wiesel maintain his posture, “We must be caring, rather than careless”?
Wiesel: Because really I don’t have a position of power, maybe that’s the reason. You and I can afford, speaking on moral issues, we don’t have to make a decision on them. I am sure that if you had here someone sitting next to you or facing you, who had power, a Senator or member of the Cabinet, they would say, “We cannot do that”. Why? “Because so much money would be needed. We don’t have the money. So housing would be required. We don’t have the housing”. So I can afford, really, only posing questions and I know that. But what would we do without question?
Heffner: Yes, but I’m convinced that you raise questions because you know what the right moral answers are.
Wiesel: That’s true.
Heffner: And you believe that by raising those questions, we will come to those answers.
Wiesel: That’s true.
Heffner: And you believe that by raising those questions, we will come to those answers.
Wiesel: I would like to think that. But even if I knew that I would not succeed, I would still raise those questions.
Wiesel: Otherwise, why am I here? I have the feeling, really, that my life is an offering I could have died. I could have died every minute between “44 and ’45. So once I have received the gift, I must justify it. And the only way to justify life is by affirming the right to life of anyone who needs such affirmation.
Heffner: But what else must you be affirming? Aren’t you affirming, too, a conviction that something will be done in response to your questions?
Wiesel: Here and there one person might listen and do. Another person might listen and not do. But I prefer to think that here and there are small miracles. And they are small miracles. A good student, a good reader, a friend. I think we spoke about it years ago, once upon a time I was convinced I could change the whole world. Anyone can change the whole world. Now I’m satisfied with small measures of grace. If we could open the door of one jail and free one innocent person. If I could save one child from starvation, believe me, to me, it would as much if not more than all the work that I am doing and all the recognition that I may get for it.
Heffner: Quite seriously, what … what do you think is likely to be the impact upon me and upon those people who are watching of a call to moral persuasion? Of a call to moral understanding? You were also calling for moral action, aren’t you, when you talked about the Sanctuary Movement? Weren’t you really saying, literally, open your doors?
Wiesel: Why, that’s so. I went to the opening of the Sanctuary Movement’s Convention. I gave the Keynote Address there, too. Because I feel we must be ready to open doors. It’s difficult, but we can … we have dealt with more difficult situations in this nation and in other nations, as well. I’ll give you an example. There are now in Russia, in spite of Gorbachev’s new style, there are still so many prisoners. I know the names. Before coming to you I got a message that a certain Edelshtein is in jail, sick. There is a professor whom I’ve met, who is ready to commit suicide because he is alone. He wants to leave and cannot. I have two friends there, one is called Slepak, Valdimir Slepak and his wife, Masha Slepak. Their entire family is outside. They are desperate. For seventeen years, they have been waiting for an immigration authorization to leave. Seventeen years, including five years in Siberia. This is inhuman. For us not to say so, would mean that we are accomplices. At least to say so and that every private person can do, simply by applying pressure on our Congressmen, our Senators and therefore, in turn they would apply pressure on our government, in turn this government would apply pressure on the Soviet government. They are dealing in terms of pressure. After all, we live in such a world.
Heffner: But you say, if we ignore this, we become accomplices. As so many did during the Holocaust, because accomplices. Where is it written that we are not moral accomplices?
Wiesel: But we are.
Heffner: But what can you expect of us?
Wiesel: Learning. After all, I don’t compare situations. I don’t compare any period to the period of the Second World War, because it was crystallized. It was absolute crime. The absolute victim. The absolute killer. And the absolute bystander. Now it’s more complex. But we have learned something. If now, one generation after that even, we are still behaving as though that event had not occurred, then what is the purpose of our work? As teachers? As writers? As men and women who are concerned with one another’s life?
Heffner: But you’re saying we have succeeded? That there has been a memorialization, we do remember.
Wiesel: I think here and there, there are convulsions, needs, to remember. And it lasts a day or the week. We cannot remember all the time. That would be impossible, we would be numb. To remember … even if I were to remember all the time, I wouldn’t be able to function. So somehow the presence of the dead is there. And I do hear certain silence or a certain voice, but I have to continue and function and eat and smile and drink.
Heffner: but while you continue to function and smile and live and drink, you are also urging upon us a posture, a philosophic and intellectual posture, that is based upon certain convictions of your own. And those are the ones that I question. Not that I’m doubting them, but I raise questions about them because you are, you are saying we can learn, we can do, even though we’ve talked about the boat people, we talk about … you have to talk about our indifference. Year after year after year, where are we? Where do we stand on this. Nowhere, it would seem.
Wiesel: Richard, when we began fighting for the boat people, we did manage to bring some of them in. I was then a delegate of the United States to be brought to the conference in Geneva. And many countries, dozens of countries have opened their doors to the boat people. But the problem is that new tragedies have taken place. And one replaces the other. Now, in our mind … and since then so many … think of Ethiopia, the children in Ethiopia. The victims of starvation and disease in Mozambique. And then the earthquake in Columbia. There isn’t a week today without a tragedy somewhere. And there, I understand we cannot deal with all of them. So my answer would be simply, begin … anywhere. If you begin with the boat people, it will lead you to other areas as well. Or begin with children. Begin here at home, with the homeless. I walked in the street a few days ago. I saw people sleeping in the street, in New York City. That is inconceivable and yet people sleep in the street.
Heffner: What does that tell you about our moral vision or our moral blindness? There they are. You perhaps become aware of them the other day. They have been there for some time. Not just in New York, but in every major city in this country.
Wiesel: That is so. Well, something is wrong with our society. That we know that.
Heffner: Our society? Or with us?
Wiesel: With both. Because we are forming society and society is influencing our behavior and our responses. So it is with both. Something is wrong. Maybe, but I always come back, of course, to what I experienced. And I have the feeling that sometimes it takes a generation for an event to awaken your awareness. And forty years in the bible is one generation. It is only now that we start feeling the impact of what happened then.
Heffner: Do you think though that you … is it possible to take a moral yardstick and set it up against the major political and social issues of our time? Is it a desirable thing to do? Or is it too dichotomizing?
Wiesel: I think it is desirable. You know, the ethos is to me what makes the human being, human. And what makes a society a human society, a civilized society. Would leaders be able to function? I don’t know. I think they should raise moral issues each time.
Heffner: So you see people on the scene here in this country, in the United States, who you can identify essentially as people who orient their relation to the problems at hand in a moral way?
Wiesel: I think in the media more than in the political field, here and there are programs. I remember the Ethiopian tragedy, actually, hit us in full force because of the media. NBC program, I remember it. I saw the children dying on the screen. And articles in the newspapers, New York Times, Washington Post, on T.V. on your own station.
Heffner: You think that that is a symbol of some moral, some lack of moral obtuseness, but put it in the negative way.
Wiesel: At least in one area we know that people could respond. And this is the area of communication. What else is there in the world, if not communication? We would all die of solitude.
Heffner: But you know, it’s a subject we have touched on before in our dialogues, our on-going dialogues, the question of, again, of our capacity. Are we made in such a way, we’re talking now once again, about the nature of human nature.
Wiesel: You know I am oscillating between extreme pessimism and extreme optimism.
Heffner: Where are you now?
Wiesel: Still oscillating …
Wiesel: … because when I’m profoundly pessimistic I force myself to say, “Well, it cannot last,” and therefore, I become optimistic. Feeling one, feeling the other. And it’s enough for me to close my eyes and remember what men are capable of doing, to become terribly, profoundly, totally pessimistic because they haven’t changed. They cannot change in forty years. But then again, I open my eyes and close them again and I say, “It would be absurd not to absorb some images and turn them into consciousness”.
Heffner: You’re a person above all others who is enormously aware of history, of the past, because your own profound involvement with the prophets, the great Hebrew prophets. Does that involvement give you any sense of shift or change in what it is we are like as human beings?
Wiesel: Oh, if Jeremiah were to come back today, he would say exactly the same thing. And once more, I think, he would not be heard. The prophets were the most tragic of all people because they spoke, nobody listened. And they were punished for speaking and God allowed them to be punished for speaking. I think not a single prophet died of natural death. They were all punished. Isaiah, and Jeremiah and Amos and all of them. I love them because they are so slumsy. They speak. They have to speak, they’re forced to speak. God makes them speak. God gives them the words. And yet at the end he allows them to die. And to suffer. For speaking, for doing his will. So I have profound sympathy for them and I occasionally teach them to my students. I love Jeremiah very much.
Heffner: Now we have rewarded a prophet? And Elie Wiesel becomes the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wiesel: I am not a prophet.
Heffner: What shall we call you?
Wiesel: I’m a witness. And a good student.
Heffner: But you are more than a witness because having witnessed, you have done something. You are more than a student, you are a teacher. So we must call you something else.
Wiesel: Who am I? I am the teacher because I was the student. And I’m trying to do something with our knowledge. The problem really, after the War when I was very young, was not that we didn’t know, but that we knew too much. All of a sudden, at my age, I was seventeen or so, eighteen, I knew so much. Too much. And unless we do something with such knowledge, we could be crushed by it. The other part was we have to adjust. Not to life, but to death. Life was difficult, but somehow the force of life was so strong that we adjusted to it. But to adjust to death and to see in every death a scandal, the blasphemy for me. Whereas during the war it was the most natural thing to witness, other people dying. It was more natural to die than to live. So therefore, we had to take all these experiences and do something with them. And this is what I’m still trying to do. I’m taking all these experiences, somehow link them to literature and to philosophy and to history. Since I cannot speak of my life, I’m too discrete, I speak of Jeremiah.
Heffner: That’s very interesting that you say you’re too discrete because in your Nobel speech, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, it was so interesting to me that you, again you raised questions, as I would expect Elie Wiesel to raise questions. And we talked about that young boy, a young Jewish boy discovered the “Kingdom of Night” and you say, about yourself, I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish and his questions, “Can this be true? This is the twentieth century not the Middle Ages”, as you were loaded into cattle cars, as you saw those around you slaughtered. Do you have any better answer?
Wiesel: Oh, questions don’t change. Answers do.
Heffner: But your questions remain the same?
Wiesel: They remain the same.
Heffner: You said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human being endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides, neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”. Well, going back to what I was striving to focus on at the beginning of our discussion here today, the variety of issues before us. If we were to deal, perhaps with immigration, or if we were to deal perhaps with our government’s attitude toward apartheid. Those moral situations are “easy” and I say that in quotation marks, to deal with. The answers, it seems to me are not that difficult to arrive at. Do you feel the same thing about such contemporary issues as those having to do with race relations in this country? Those having to do with feminism? Those having to do with welfare programs? Where do you draw the line?
Wiesel: I don’t. I feel as strong about race relations here as I feel about race relations in South Africa. The fact that there’s a new racism in our own country, twenty years after Martin Luther King’s death is, to me, a disgrace. That there are campuses, where young people have become anti-Black, is to me, a shame, a source of shame. I, as a teacher am ashamed. In twenty years we are going back to the Middle Ages again? So I do not draw the line. I think it’s our duty, our responsibility to educate our young people.
Heffner: You say we’re going back? In twenty years could we be going back to the Middle Ages. Do you think that we ever left those attitudes behind us? Even abandoned them temporarily?
Wiesel: I think we have. Let’s go back a little bit and then we’ll see that it has. After all, when I came to the United States in the last “50s, I remember I made a journey throughout the country. And I was, I was so embarrassed, I felt to ashamed, when I saw in the South the official anti-Black racist policies. I’m used to injustice, but when I see it officially sanctioned, it’s something else. And in the South, it was official to treat the Black people as sub-humans. Then came the assassination of the President and in twenty years our nation and not only changed its laws, it has changed its mentality. In twenty years somehow we have learned to see in the Black person a human being. There was a change, a very quick change and I was proud of that change and I was proud of our nation. But now there’s apparently another reversal and of this, of course, I am not proud.
Heffner: Again I ask, do you feel that this attitude that you refer to, on the campuses, some of the campuses, in some communities and certainly not just in the deep South, not at all, where you find, what you call a new racism, I still have to raise the question as to whether that level of racial antipathy had ever, ever, ever been mitigated?
Wiesel: I think it has. As far as I could judge, it had been mitigated. After the Kennedy assassination and then the Civil Rights Law, people responded differently. But it didn’t last long.
Heffner: Why do you think we have moved back again?
Wiesel: Some people couldn’t take it. But let’s not exaggerate, I hope it’s a minority. It’s a very small minority, as you said earlier, not everywhere, but in very specific places and what I would seem to like to see is to see an upsurge of protest against it. To stop it now.
Heffner: Well, again, in your Nobel speech, you talk about the equivalent of leadership. You say there is much to be done, there is much that can be done, one person can make a difference, a difference of life and death. You talk about Wallenberg and you talk about an Albert Schweitzer. You’re talking about people of integrity, you’re really talking about leadership, aren’t you?
Wiesel: I do. Yes, I am talking about leadership and I would like to see leadership, of course, within our own country and that’s the problem we are confronted with these days. Where is leadership?
Heffner: In the racial area?
Wiesel: In the racial area. I am waiting for someone in the White community and someone in the Black community to rise to the challenge and meet and speak and dialogue and see what has to be done in both. Because Farrakhan is as fanatic as the White racist is. And strangely enough both of them may be in solidarity because both hate each other. They are bound by the same hatred for each other.
Heffner: That is a trap, isn’t it?
Wiesel: It is a trap.
Heffner: The trap of hatred, one for the other.
Wiesel: Oh, it’s a strong bond.
Heffner: You know, our time is up now. I’d like to come back at another time to talk about the extremism that you find, not just in this country, but in Israel at this point and we’ll discuss that at another point. Thank you so much for joining me today, Elie Wiesel.
Wiesel: Thank you.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s topic, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation.