Elie Wiesel … The Mystic Chords of Memory
VTR Date: July 15, 1992
Guest: Wiesel, Elie
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Elie Wiesel… The Mystic Chords of Memory”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And as I grow older – – obviously, too, with an enormous awareness of the years as they pass more and more swiftly (always with a toll that by nature grows greater and greater still) — I become ever more concerned with memory, indeed devoted to the use of remembrance as the tie that alone makes sense of human existence, that binds humankind together… one with each other, past with present with future: all that has gone before, that is, that has yet to be… so that it might be better.
Perhaps that’s why over the years I have become so thoroughly devoted to and respectful of my guest today… for whom, like Lincoln, the mystic chords of memory must always be touched by the better angels of our nature.
Lest we forget, writer, historian, witness, survivor, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel has dedicated his life to hold back that forgetfulness that makes a mockery of mankind’s struggle to prevail over the past and to make for a better future.
Yet I know that there are people now who want Elie Wiesel to desist… to let sleeping dogs lie… no longer to embrace memory… to deny it… to forget. But he will not. And my dear friend’s enormously moving new book, The Forgotten, published by Summit Books, is brilliant in its use of forgetfulness as a personal disease, as a metaphor for what may in as deadly fashion be happening to us on a much larger stage. Welcome, Elie, I’m glad you’re here. I’m pleased with the opportunity to have read The Forgotten, and I have to begin at the end of your book, when you are addressing yourself to your protagonist… to his grandfather, to his father, and you write “Was it his wish that my memory substitute for his own?
That at I do the remembering for him? Is that even possible? And I think that’s a question about what you are doing for us. Is it possible for your memory and the memory of your son, in turn, and of the rest of us, to substitute for the experience of the Holocaust?
Wiesel: No. The experience remains unique. But the memory of it is not. You will never know what I know… in a way I don’t want you to know. Because that knowledge would mean an experience, an experience such as the one that I have known. But the memory of that knowledge can be used. So I try to share with you, not my experience, but the memory that I carry within myself.
Heffner: Yet, at the end of The Forgotten” it seems to me that you question whether memory and the imposition of that memory upon those to come is possible… is fair.
Wiesel: It is a terrible dilemma. Excuse me. Because on one hand I would like you to remember, on the other hand, I know you cannot remember. I cannot remember.
Heffner: What do you mean you “can’t remember?”
Wiesel: I don’t remember everything. I tried, even during the time, during the War, as a child, as an adolescent, I tried to see as much as possible. To see faces, to remember gestures, to see the suffering, the resistance to the suffering, the resistance to evil, and evil itself. I, I didn’t know that I would survive the war, but I somehow, as a Jew, as a human being I felt that as long as I’m alive, I must remember life became identical with memory. But now, I wonder, what about those that I have not managed to recall, to gather in my memory? I see hundreds of people, thousands of people, anonymous, wanderers into the night, going to the flames. I don’t remember all. So what about those that only I have seen? What about the words that nobody uttered… the thoughts, the prayers, the hopes, the despairing calls for meaning… that is my despairing fight.
Heffner: “Despairing fight,” isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
Wiesel: Oh yes, but I’m not against contradictions, you know that, we have had our encounters throughout the years, and they’ve always inspired, enriched me, too. I’m not against contradictions, life is a contradiction. But what I would not like to have is a contradiction that turns against our human beings, our human fellow brothers, companions, sojourners. The moment a contradiction turns against humanity, I discard it.
Heffner: But you have always said, “lest we forget.” Your life over these past decades has been the means by which so many of us who didn’t know, or who knew but forget would not forget, and yet at the end of the book you raise the question as to whether it is possible, and if it is not possible, what then do we do with what happened, the most enormous event of this century…
Wiesel: Excuse me.
Heffner: …do we forget it?
Wiesel: Even if you remember a spark of the flame, it’s enough. Even if you remember one face, it would be enough. But always remember it’s only one face, multiplied by six million. What I try to do is to bring you closer to the gate, and I tell you you cannot go beyond that, only those who were there know what it was being there. But come closer… and the only way to come closer is to come to closer to my memory, meaning to the memory of those who survived the war, and that event. Testimonies, prayers, meetings, words, silences… each person has his or her own way of expressing what nobody can ever express… the ineffable experience. Only God’s name is ineffable, but it’s not so… our experience, too, is ineffable.
Heffner: Do you feel that… no… let me, let me not ask the question that way. How do you explain the growing sense in this country, in our own country not that the Holocaust never occurred, but that it’s dimensions were so much less than we have known them to be in the past.
Wiesel: Look, in the beginning people didn’t want to know about it. Then they didn’t want to believe it. It is human to refuse to believe that human beings could be so inhuman… because it threatens everybody. And therefore they invented all kinds of escapisms… one of them was, for instance, an abstraction, saying Auschwitz… man’s inhumanity to man. It’s wrong. It’s also that, but it’s not it… Auschwitz meant the murder of hundreds and thousands and millions of people… human beings who were alive and who no longer are. You don’t reduce such an agony, such a mystery to an abstraction… man’s inhumanity to man. And then the next phase was here in America especially, the embellishment meaning even, even death can be embellished, especially here… death is an industry in America… everything is beautiful, the funeral in America is a beautiful thing… it shouldn’t be. Death is a brutal phenomenon. And, and you don’t put, put make-up on, on the person who dies, or on the whole ceremony. And therefore they took that event, too, and they made it commercial, and they made it “kitsch,” why not say it… “kitsch,” they trivialized it. In doing so, I think, they caused great harm and prejudice to memory.
Heffner: Then as we go into the 21st century, will this extraordinary event not really exist any longer?
Wiesel: It will exist in the testimonies, in the chronicles, in the documents, not in fiction. I think a book of fiction cannot reveal the truth of that period, shouldn’t. Literature and Auschwitz do not go together.
Heffner: Is that why some years back you were so despairing of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of television… fiction, theater…
Wiesel: Yes, I was and I still am, by the way. I think those programs did more harm than we know. On one hand, of course, because of the superficiality of it… the common denominator was so low that it, it affected people, people loved seeing Auschwitz as a love story, a cheap love story at that. But it’s not death, death event should provoke such pain that people would resist to come close to it.
Heffner: You can deal with this. You can deal with it because you are a philosopher, because you are a man of the world, because you reach out. What about other survivors, what about those for whom the end of the century comes closer to the end of their lives?
Wiesel: To mine, too, I think… I’m their age.
Heffner: But who do not reach out, who cannot… who don’t have the ability to…
Wiesel: No, they do, they try. In the beginning, when I wrote my very first book, and I… it was ten years after the war, my principle goal, really, was to reach the survivors, my colleagues. Why? Because in the beginning they didn’t talk. They didn’t talk because nobody wanted to hear them. And I wanted to show them, “look, it’s possible to talk,” and even if it isn’t, we must talk. So my goal, really, was to reach them and to inspire them and to tell them, look do what I am doing. And I didn’t succeed in the beginning. It took years and years and years of work to, to convince them that every one of them is a witness and everyone’s testimony is unique and uniquely qualified and uniquely needed. Now there are many of them who write books. I get so many manuscripts, and you know, I… I, I try to help everyone, I write forewords and last words and, and epilogues, and blurbs… anything for, for the document of that caliber, of that kind, of that nature, I’m ready to do anything. Now they do speak. In the beginning children came to me, you know, when I was teaching at City College, at that time, and all of a sudden I realized that most of my students were children of survivors, although the subject was something else… Hasidism philosophy and the Talmud and so forth. And then I realized they came to me because their parents didn’t talk to them, so I became a surrogate father. Then the parents came to me, and I became to them a surrogate son… a bridge between the father and the son. And it was very moving to try to tell the children “you now become the parents of your parents, they see in you their own parents, and you must help them more than they can help you.”
Heffner: In what way is that help most needed now? Is there despair that… what you have commented on, our forgetfulness must be a blow… a tearing, wrenching blow to everyone who has survived that people are less and less aware of, more and more doubting about that incredible experience?
Wiesel: Look, I have said it so many times that to forget the victims means to kill them a second time. We couldn’t prevent the first killing, but we are responsible for the second one if it takes place. If there was one basic obsession that was common to all the victims is not to forget… at least not to allow the world to forget what had happened. And that is our responsibility. I also believe really although the event was a Jewish event, a Jewish tragedy, but it had universal implications and applications. If we were to forget what happened to the Jewish people, then other things could happen to other people. Which means, I don’t want my past to become somebody else’s future, and that is really why we write, why we teach, why we do what we are doing… trying to maintain alive a memory which is a memory of flame, and of despair and of death, and of hunger and humiliation.
Heffner: But, Elie, there was… I sense in your book that you have somewhat changed in your sense of what your, your mission is, and here it is… where, where you write “don’t tell your son and don’t tell your father that we must belong to the world at large, that we must transcend ourselves by supporting all causes and for… and fighting for the victims of every injustice.” That struck me so as quintessentially not the Elie Wiesel I have known.
Wiesel: It’s true because the character of the novel has to say it, because it’s apt for him, not for me… I believe we must transcend provided we remain what we are. What I mean to say there is, don’t give up your Jewishness in order to become universal. The only way for me to become universal is through my Jewishness. I do fight for other causes, always have, I did fight and my life is testimony to that, and I still am fighting, be it for the minorities in America, Indian or African-American, or for… excuse me… the victims of apartheid in South Africa, whatever. Wherever there is anything I try to help, modestly, because I don’t have that much power… except the power, occasionally of some of my words. But I cannot allow my Jewishness to be wiped out in exchange of something I would do for others… I don’t want to do that. If I were to kill the Jew in me, what would I do? I would actually do what Hitler did… on a different scale. And that and for other reasons, for positive reasons, I love my Jewishness… I love the traditions I have inherited, I love the moral precepts which I’m learning every day. But when I say that I mean that a Christian may say the same thing, I allow him and I order him to feel the same way about his or her Christianity as I feel about my Jewishness, or the Muslim about Islam. I believe in tolerance but tolerance means I accept you for what you are, I don’t want you to change, I don’t want you to resemble me. I don’t need another me… that’s what I meant in this…
Heffner: A half dozen years ago, when you were the keynote speaker at Liberty Conference, you struck just that note, a note of universality…
Heffner:…of universality of concern without an emphasis upon diminishing the strength of our integrity, our own character, our own heritage. What has happened, do you feel, to the Jewish community in this country over these past half dozen years, and more, of course, in terms of this matter of almost intellectual assimilation or assimilation of emotions of concern?
Wiesel: Well, I think it hasn’t changed much. There are Jewish writers, as there are other writers who don’t know much about their own heritage. There are so many Jewish writers who don’t know anything about Judaism, except what they read from others. In other words, if I were a French writer, would I write if I don’t know Victor Hugo, or Rabelais, or Sand, or Montaigne, but I… in text, of course. I think a Jewish writer should know, in text, the basic treasures of our heritage… they don’t know because they are American writers, who actually were born Jewish, and they… its okay, I’m not criticizing them, really… who am I to criticize anyone? But I would like really to, to bring about a situation in which we would go back to the authenticity of our very being, and to be authentic, I must first of all be who I am, and what I am. Which means I am the sum total of thousands of scholars and disciples, that gives me a very special feeling. That I, when I… when I study and when I teach, I feel that I have people looking over my shoulders, meaning Abraham is looking there and listening… what am I saying in his name? Or Moses? These are all giants in, in human history.
Heffner: But isn’t that kind of authenticity, as you so lovingly call it, doesn’t it enter into tension with… doesn’t it, to put it more baldly, conflict with the notion of universality?
Wiesel: Not at all. Universality today… could it exclude Abraham? Or Moses? Or Plato?
Heffner: But suppose we talk then, not about exclusion, but about emphasis… given the limitations of time and space… isn’t that the argument that goes on now between those who say, for instance, that there should be an emphasis upon, for Blacks, upon African traditions, and those who say, on the other hand, in this great melting pot with a limited amount of time and space… if you emphasize the particularistic, you are diminishing the universal.
Wiesel: Well, I am for African-Americans, really learning their tradition and teach their tradition to me. I want to hear that. That would enrich me. I need it. I don’t believe in a melting pot, I believe in a melting pot only on one level…
Wiesel: …of human rights. I think I have the same rights, and the same duties that anyone else, and anyone else has the same rights and the same duties as I have.
Heffner: Alright… alright… let’s, let’s accept that, hopefully… and go beyond… you say “otherwise…”
Wiesel: Otherwise I’m… oh, no, I want to accept and to learn and to be open to other people’s culture. I, I tell you, for instance… I’m terribly upset with the fact that we do not pay enough attention to the Indian culture in America. After all, they were here before us. And then we came here… they didn’t invite us… we came, we took their lands, we killed their men and women, and now we are here and we act as if they have never been here. I want to know what an Indian culture is, and I feel almost guilty, when I think of it, that we came and we replaced them with our language, with our culture, with our way of life, with our philosophy. And whenever you read what they have to offer, you are amazed at the beauty, at the exquisite way of, of handling problems that are still our problems.
Heffner: Elie, let me then ask you perhaps a more difficult question….
Wiesel: All of your questions are difficult… don’t worry about it….
Heffner: Given the nature of modern, contemporary technology, given the fact that our world is made smaller and smaller, whether one is talking about business or government, science… do you think that we will nurture further that notion of yours of accepting universality in terms of rights, but not in terms of heritage? What is your prophecy?
Wiesel: My prophecy… I’m very poor in being a prophet. You know, in the Jewish tradition prophets, first of all, fared badly… they all were killed… they all died unnatural deaths. Second, we are told that with the destruction of the second temple, all prophets disappear… except for children and the fools, so it must be a fool to be a prophet. I don’t even know who would be elected here. So how can I say what will happen in the year 2000. I think that the age of communications, which is ours, is extraordinary. We have made such progress in that area…
Wiesel: Progress, of course… I mean…
Heffner: That’s not a judgmental word?
Wiesel: No, I mean progress because I remember when the first man was on the moon… I was much more struck and astonished, and grateful to hear him, while he was there, the same time then to know that he took a… I don’t know what even, what a scientific achievement to put him there… to put him there meant nothing to me… but when he talked, I could hear, he created a communication within the moon, within the man on the moon, and the man on earth… it’s beautiful. I always thought, you know, Buddha… Plato… Socrates… and Jeremiah and Lao-tse were almost contemporaries and they didn’t know about one another. So imagine, if you could bring them together before a television camera… if we had had such a program, what it would do for human kind. Now we can do that. You can do that… bring together people from all the horizons, all the spheres and establish an exchange, a dialogue… a multi-dialogue… it’s possible and beneficial. The problem is when you bring people together and you listen to them, they have nothing to say. Never before has society been more vocal… telephones in the thousands everywhere… radio stations in the hundreds… television programs in the hundreds… everywhere… people talk and talk and talk. When you listen to them, very little to say.
Heffner: That’s why I raised the question about progress… about your use of the word…
Wiesel: Mechanically, progress is there.
Heffner: But then… I’m, and we only have a few minutes left… I, I really want to tease out of you a sense of what you feel about the possibility of maintaining, or fostering the kind of sense of individual groups, groupings, religions, characteristics, in the face of mass communication, mass transportation, etc., etc.
Wiesel: I, I, I know your problem.
Heffner: That’s why I asked you to prophesize.
Wiesel: I don’t know. I know one thing… that a society is judged by its attitude towards the weak, the helpless and the stranger. But thanks to the communication that we have obtained, nobody is really a stranger. I know the person who lives in Africa today, the moment the person lives or dies, I can see him or her… shouldn’t be a stranger. But on the other hand… that’s your, your predicament. Because of the nature of the communication medium, or the vehicle, is a show… so I remember when I saw for the first time, children of Biafra… hungry… I didn’t sleep. I tried everything I could really around me and to write articles, and call up people and organize activities to send food to those children… but if you had shown those pictures for a whole month… the second month people would not have been moved by it. So I know the problem… I don’t have the answer… but then you know already, I always have good questions… and I don’t have answers.
Heffner: You’ve always said that was the great art to have the….
Heffner: …questions. Elie I’m so grateful to you for, for coming back. I’m so grateful to you for having written The Forgotten so that I might read it and feel as much as I did. I told you as, as I finished it, I was crying and I don’t easily cry. Anyway, promise me you’ll come back again.
Wiesel: Of course, anytime, you know that.
Heffner: Thank you, Elie Wiesel. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, 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. In the meantime, 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 Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.