Elie Wiesel

Must the Past Be Prologue?

VTR Date: May 26, 1999

Guest: Wiesel, Elie


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: Elie Wiesel…Must The Past Be Prologue?
VTR: 5/26/99

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind…and I must say that the one thing I know for certain in this ever changing, uncertain universe is that I’ve introduced today’s guest with the greatest and most admiring enthusiasm and the warmest good feelings all the many, many times he has joined me here on The Open Mind. And on Dialogues, our new series of home video conversations on capital punishment; on genetic engineering; on that perennial question: Am I my brother’s keeper?; on taking life as an act of mercy; and on various other crucial issues of the 20th century that, as he has often said so eloquently, “must all be dealt with in moral terms”.

Writer, teacher, scholar, human rights activist, survivor, Elie Wiesel has been awarded the French Legion of Honor, the President’s Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Nobel Peace Prize, among many other honors.

Now he joins me to look back on the extraordinary century behind us and to take from its lessons what we might for the next, new millennium. Elie, what is there for us to have learned from this strange, strange century?

WIESEL: The story.

HEFFNER: You’re always the story-teller.

WIESEL: (Laughter) The story. It’s a very beautiful Hasidic story, I think. Two men meet by accident. The first is alone in the forest…lost. He doesn’t know the way out. A day passes. He is in panic. Then he sees the second one. And he’s so happy. He runs to him, and says “Thank God that you are here. Now, please show me the way out.” And the other one says, “Look, I’m also lost. All I can tell you is…don’t go this way…”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

WIESEL: …I just came from there”. But this is the story…the next century should learn not to be like the Twentieth Century.

HEFFNER: Why has it been, why was it quite such a horrendous period in mans’ history?

WIESEL: Maybe every century seems horrendous and filled with fear and anguish. But ours, really, I think, crossed threshold…two World Wars…two totalitarian ideologies…regimes…civil wars, religious wars, ethnic wars…it doesn’t end. It began in Sarajevo and here we are again in Kosovo. So what is happening to us, that we don’t know how to live in peace with one another? What is happening to us that we don’t remember that one bullet in Sarajevo provoked a World War, so therefore be careful. Be careful with words, be careful with bullets.

HEFFNER: Elie, do we remember less well, do you think? You talk about the transition between and among other centuries, from the 18th to the 19th, from the 15th to the 16th. Do you think one must look back and say, “We have learned our lessons so poorly that we are stepping backwards”?

WIESEL: If we forget and we step backwards…because we go back the abyss of ignorance, or not knowing. The 19th century was a romantic century. It was dominated mainly by Napoleon. What was Napoleon’s goal? Conquest. What is the 20th century’s? Conquest. One of the words that dominate our vocabulary is “conquest”. Stalin wanted to conquer Eastern Europe, and did. Hitler wanted to conquer the whole world, and almost did. And now, after the two World Wars we want to conquer space. It’s always “conquer”…we conquer. The moneymakers conquer money in the markets. Other people conquer the minds or the souls. The fanatics today are after our souls. So what does it mean, really? That certain words survive from one century into the other. And we are now wise enough or strong enough…perhaps not generous enough to know that certain words are dangerous. They are carriers of death. And these words should be unmasked first and disarmed later.

HEFFNER: And do you think in this new century before us we will look back and say, “we have learned what Elie Wiesel has just said, that conquering this, or a war against drugs; or a war against that; or a war against something else”, the metaphors are wrong?

WIESEL: Yes. Because we use the wars. But then in general, we use the wrong word. We lost, we lost the ability of finding the meaning of words…we use words and they mean something else now. We call it the mysticism…there’s a marvelous expression, it’s called (???)…the exile of the word, which means…when there’s separation between word and meaning, then the words are in exile, or the meaning is in exile. And we are in exile. We exiled ourselves by doing things we don’t understand. We don’t even want, we don’t want to go that far, and yet we do them because everybody else does them.

HEFFNER: You say “doing things we don’t understand”. Please help me understand that.

WIESEL: I’ll give you an example. A tragedy occurs somewhere in the world and we must, as human beings, we must take a human attitude, a human position…to help those who are its victims. But we don’t know how to do…this thing…how to go to help the victims without beginning another war. Take Kosovo now, for instance. We want to help the victims of Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians. And in the process there’s a war going on. A million people have been expelled. We look back to the 20th century and what remains? There are exiled people who have been expelled from their homes, from their lives, from their identities and yet we didn’t want that. We wanted to help them. So in the beginning there were only a hundred thousand. Now there’s over a million. So we don’t know what to do. And yet power is here at our disposal. All we have to do is stretch out our hand, and cease power, if you have the power of the political leaders. We did, or course, with these leaders they are our…not our mentors, but they are our decision makers. That is probably one of the worst things we can say about this century.

HEFFNER: But doesn’t that…isn’t that an indication that we don’t really want to do…want to do the things…oh, if they come easily, if we can save these people easily. But that our own moral purpose is far different from what moral purposes have served us in the past.

WIESEL: We have spoken so often you and I, Dick, and we decided together that history without its ethical component must go astray because the carriers of history would do immoral (???) things. Now what have we learned from the Thirties…I won’t speak of the Forties because I never compare anything to the Forties. But in the Thirties…that Hitler said it openly in his book and in his speeches. The whole program was there. He said it…he was going to do this and that. And yet, the whole world was silent. If France had intervened in 1936 or ’38, and Britain, too, in 1939, there would have been no Second World War. Which means we must take a moral position and act on it. It’s not easy. And we shouldn’t look for easy solutions. But we must do it.

HEFFNER: You would never be one to withdraw and simply say, “I see, we see, what the moral solution or the moral resolution, or the moral position must be. But we, the human race will not and therefore let us withdraw”. Do you ever entertain that notion?

WIESEL: Look, I am not naïve. I’m not that naïve. I know that the words that I use really…maybe you hear them because you are my friend. And I’m yours. But those who have power don’t hear. It doesn’t matter, we go on. We must go on. We knock at the door, sometimes with our head. And one of the two will break, either the head or the door. One will do it, if not what are we doing in this world? What are we doing with our memories, what are …with the memories of our suffering? Of our triumphs? Or our tribulations? Of our challenges? Of our defeats? Because the Second World War, individually so many people were defeated simply because they couldn’t take it anymore. They committed suicide, so many. Now, if we don’t do that, what’s it do to us? If we merely become accomplices…that somehow (???) become victims. Do I want that? If I have a choice between being a victim or an executioner, of course, I would certainly be with a victim, or a victim of the executioner. But now there are other places in the world that are executioners, who kill people. Who humiliate people, who shoot people.

HEFFNER: Elie, how do you deal with the point that we have become executioners in our well-intentioned activities? We are trying to follow the moral principles that you set forth in terms of Kosovo…in the process we are every day reading about the people we killed. How do you deal with that?

WIESEL: Poorly. Badly. I said to myself, “Thank God that I am not a General”. I wouldn’t do it…as a general. I would be a very poor soldier anyway. At the same time, what is the alternative? If I had an alternative to propose, I would do it. I would propose it. I have no alternative. What is the alternative…is it to be complacent? Resigned? And let Milosevic do what he has been doing before the bombing and during the bombing? And that, I think would be irresponsible, immoral, and maybe even criminal.

HEFFNER: We are recording this program at the end of May, 1999, fast approaching the end of the century. Do you find, as I do, increasing numbers of people who nevertheless, despite the question you’ve just asked, were saying “we must withdraw. We must not. We cannot participate in these atrocities”?

WIESEL: No. Because these are not…let’s be honest and compare. I don’t like to do it…

HEFFNER: I know.

WIESEL: But we must compare between what Milosevic is doing and what we are doing. What we are doing is trying to stop Milosevic and in doing so terrible things are happening. The bombing of civilians of course is a terrible thing. But nevertheless nobody wants to kill the civilians. On the other hand, Milosevic wants to expel the civilians and torment them and torture them and humiliate them and move them to despair. So it’s atrocities, yes, when we speak of Milosevic. But not when we do the terrible things that they are doing. But, again, I don’t see what else we can do. They should be more careful, naturally. If I had to give an advice to the generals, I would say, “Please be more precise, more careful”. Installations, go ahead. Beaches, beaches, yes, but not people. Now, on the other hand…I don’t…you asked me a question. I don’t really hear people telling me “let’s don’t do it at all”. On the contrary, people say, “Since we’ve decided we must do it for moral reasons, let’s send troops”.

HEFFNER: Maybe nobody dares…


HEFFNER: …maybe nobody dares speak otherwise before you, Elie.

WIESEL: No. When I speak, let’s say at university…students there…they ask…they simply say “Look we understand the moral obligation.” That’s of course the basis, the moral obligation. Then once we say that it is moral, the moral imperative is to intervene…then they say, “go ahead”. What do I know about these things? People ask me to sign all kinds of petitions to send troops. What right do I have to do that? I have never seen a tank from inside. I’ve never been in a bomber. I don’t…these things. I don’t know how many, how many plans are needed. I don’t know how many helicopters are needed. It’s for the generals to decide. And I hope that they know what they’re doing.

HEFFNER: But on the larger question, you are signing the petition in a way…morally, intellectually…

WIESEL: That we should intervene, yes. I believe in that…that we should intervene…with a very heavy heart because I’m against violence. You know me. I don’t find any beauty, any salvation in violence. I’m against war. And that the fact that people kill one another is something which I find abhorrent. And I don’t glorify it. I’m against those who glorify war, who celebrate war…or war heroes, even. I don’t like it. But here I think of the victims. I see the children…the children…always the children…on television …I see…they are looking for their parents, their parents disappeared. Because the militia came and took the father away. The mother’s running after the husband. And the children are there. So, I have the right, therefore, to say “look”, and therefore I cannot sign. No. You must think first of the victims, always, everywhere. And they are the victims.

HEFFNER: You know the question I’ve asked myself over and over again in the past weeks…how to account for the phenomenon of mistake after mistake after mistake. Not one or two, but seemingly almost daily.

WIESEL: You know, I don’t know. Look, I must tell you I am surprised, I am shocked. The CIA I think has a $30 billion budget…annual budget of $30 billion and they couldn’t buy a new map? It’s crazy. I don’t understand it. I don’t’ understand, either.

HEFFNER: Elie, if…if we prevail here, what will prevail?

WIESEL: Ahhhhh.

HEFFNER: The notion that we will do it again and again and again.

WIESEL: First of all, (???) the gesture…that civilized people with conscience do not abandon the victims of injustice. If I were to phrase it, I would use these words…as you know, nothing is worse for the victim to feel abandoned. And it breaks my heart to think that they would feel abandoned. We have no right to abandon them. So it’s always…I think of the victims. The moment you think of the victims, you use certain words. And that should be, I think, the lesson. In the 21st century wherever a dictator would try to do the same thing there will be enough people in the world who will assume and accept the sacrifices necessary.

HEFFNER: Elie, we’ve…

WIESEL: …people doing that.

HEFFNER: …we’ve often spoken about forgetting…the sin of forgetting…


HEFFNER: …the importance of memory. Now at the end of this century, how well have we done by way of remembering the incredible event in which you yourself participated…the Holocaust. How well as the world population…

WIESEL: A few…a few elements of Kosovo come to mind. What will the century be remembered for? Space? Hiroshima? The First World War? Communism? Stalin? I believe that if there is one, it will be Auschwitz, a monument to ashes, that will symbolize this century more than anything else, because all the other things somehow correspond to certain logic. But the logic in warfare…warfare you do certain things…but here it was totally, totally insane. History went mad.

HEFFNER: Then the question is as survivors…

WIESEL: Disappear.

HEFFNER: …disappear…

WIESEL: Disappear, they die, they die.

HEFFNER: Then how well will we have understood that Auschwitz stands…

WIESLEL: Understood…I don’t know. I don’t understand it still. I have read every single book that I find in the languages accessible to me that I read. And to this day, I swear to you, I still don’t understand how it happened, why it happened.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that? That you don’t understand it.

WIESEL: It could have been avoided. The greatest tragedy in recorded…could have been avoided. As we said earlier by…it should have taken so little, really to, to stop Hitler and we didn’t. Then I don’t understand the victims. Really, I don’t understand them. They became perfect victims…just as the killers were perfect killers. I don’t understand the indifference surrounding the killers and the victims. We read, we read newspapers in the United States…the New York Times of those days…the time they even described the first stories about the Holocaust, it was buried on page 60 or 36, I don’t even know what. By the way The Times had the courage under Punch Sulzberger…they had an exhibit in the New York Public Library…(???)…they did say that there they failed with regard to the Holocaust. I don’t understand it. So, philosophically I don’t understand it…what does it mean that people are capable of doing that? Theologically I don’t understand it. Where was God? There is so much I don’t understand. But there are people who do, by the way.

HEFFNER: Who do?

WIESEL: Who say so, at least.


WIESEL: Oh, I’ve had explanations in many books…philosophers and theologians and psychologists, and psychiatrists…sociologists…they all have explanations. I find them, let’s say, not satisfactory.

HEFFNER: Because you won’t accept their basic assumptions about the nature of human nature?

WIESEL: Because I don’t think there is an answer. Maybe God can give an answer, and even if God gave me the answer, I would reject it. I wouldn’t accept it.

HEFFNER: Ahhhh. Isn’t that the point? You would reject it.

WIESEL: I would reject it.

HEFFNER: Then why, Elie, do you say, “I don’t understand”, if you’re really saying “don’t explain it, I won’t accept it. I can’t.”

WIESEL: He may try to explain it, but I won’t accept it. I would like to know. I would really…if God were to speak in his way…suppose there’s a prophet who would come down…there are no prophets anymore since the destruction of the first temple, two thousand five hundred years ago. But suppose he would choose a prophet and say, “Okay, you are my prophet now. Isaiah, go back. Go back and tell us…and tell your people, tell my people what happened and why”. I would like to meet him. First because he had a marvelous time. He was a prince of the prophets, we called him. But I would…at the end I think I would say “No, look the death of one child has no answer. Not to the parents. The death of six million children, parents, grandparents cannot have an answer. Not even to God”.

HEFFNER: Then we move away from it, don’t we? We…there cannot be an answer.

WIESEL: No, we stay with the question. That’s why you and I are teachers because we try to privilege, to favor the question over the answer. And we will remain with the question…that will remain, I think, in history. Maybe the 21st century will learn from the 20th century how to ask questions. Questions bring people together. Answers divide them. Fanatics have no questions. They give you the answer before they hear your question.
And the 21st century to save itself from many of the trials that plagued ours will learn that…to say the questions are more important than the answers.

HEFFNER: Do you think that science, let’s just call it science…technology will change everything that we have experienced? Will change the basic ground rules, basic assumptions so that the humanism of an Elie Wiesel will not only be unique to you and to some few others, but simply not in keeping with the new technological age?

WIESEL: I would like the scientists also to study humanities. I would like…I’d be lobbying in every university to introduce courses on ethics and humanities into the professional schools, architects, engineers, and scientists. Why? Because they need to know the meaning of it all. They have poetry, for instance…I like the idea…the notion of the DNA. It means you can find in my DNA traces of my ancestors of 2,000 years ago. That is beautiful. It’s a code somehow…the code is here. All we have to do is to decipher it. Especially in medicine. I am in awe, really, faced with the medical experiments that are being conducted to help human beings overcome sickness and diseases. Do…you can see the brain, to see how it functions. What doctors have done that prolong life, that prolong life. They have discovered in fifty years more than in 5,000 how to prolong life, how to help the living. The problem is society. The moment we become old, they throw us away…at best they send us to Miami. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: (Laughter) You’ve noticed the process. Elie, you remain the most somber optimist I know because you work on the basic assumption, not that you will find the answer to the question we were dealing with before. But there is a future, and you say we must find it a future in which what you’re describing now will be of the past. You still are a man of faith.

WIESEL: I like…Camus said it…the choice is being a weeping optimist or a smiling pessimist. (Laughter) So we smile. It doesn’t mean that there is no reason for weeping. But what can we give our young people? Only sadness? I think if that were the answer I would stop…not writing…I would go on writing, but publishing, I wouldn’t do it. I think they deserve something else. If…when I write a novel and the novel…usually the beginning is somber. Until I find a way out I don’t give it to the publisher. I must find a ray of hope somewhere, anywhere.

HEFFNER: And do you find a ray of hope for our discussion of the 21st century?

WIESEL: Yes. I see the young people…your children and grandchildren and my son and I hope his children…I think of them. On one hand I think it’s terribly sad…it is very sad. I think of them. I say “look what could happen to them”. The legacy of this century is a warning. But then I say to myself, “they’re young, they inherit the legacy and they in turn will do something with it.” And so I smile.

HEFFNER: And that, Elie, is a perfect way to end our program, ending the century…with your smile. Thank you, Elie Wiesel, for joining me again.

WIESEL: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.