Elie Wiesel discusses how his beliefs have or haven't changed over the years.
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GUEST: Elie Wiesel
AIR DATE: 09/15/2012
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And for almost three decades now the honor has been mine that Elie Wiesel – writer, teacher, historian, much honored Noble Peace Prize Laureate, witness to and victim of the inhumanity and outrage of anti-Semitism in the years of the Holocaust … and thereafter – has again and again joined me here, in conversation.
Indeed, the other evening I reviewed for myself some of the many themes and questions – questions that my guest invariably replies to with further questions – questions that over the years have occasioned our conversations together:
“Am I my Brother’s Keeper?”
“The Proper Boundaries Between Religion and Politics, Church and State”
“The Proper Role Of The Intellectual In Our Lives”
“On Being Politically Correct”
“The Anatomy Of Hate”
“The Use And Misuse Of Memory”
“Anti-Semitism…The World’s Most Durable Ideology”
“Taking Life: Can It Be An Act Of Compassion and Mercy?
“Making Ourselves Over… But In Whose Image?”
“Must The Past Be Prologue?”
And, of course, always the essential Elie Wiesel injunction – never a question here – that “Whatever We Do Must Be Measured in Moral Terms”.
But, for all of these themes – and so many, many more – and for all of our years spent in conversation on The Open Mind, I realize that I’ve never asked my guest, my dear friend, one particularly compelling question.
And now I must: during these long years has he changed his mind, his thinking about matters sacred or profane? Have over the years newer views proven to him to be truer views? Fair question, Elie?
WIESEL: Of course, all questions are fair. Answers are not. But … because … we know each other for so many decades really … we have been friends, and therefore, our, our conversation is very special … it has a special tone. Special intensity. Special truth.
So you ask … of course the answer is: No. I have not changed. I have not changed simply because … what alternative do I have?
HEFFNER: Interesting question, isn’t it?
WIESEL: But I don’t have any alternative. If I am not who I am … or what I am … if I am not I, who am I?
And so it’s true I have gone through, even after the war … some periods of anguish, pain, fear. But they didn’t change me. They simply … whatever I felt became deeper.
The questions themselves became deeper … without the answers.
HEFFNER: Questions about you and your God?
WIESEL: Even that. You know, we spoke about it quite a lot, you and I … in our last … latest conversation so, so. People think, reading my book … at least the first one Night, they think that I gave up on God.
Yes and no. I have never lost faith in God. It is because I remained a religious person that I have problems with God. So I don’t deny God, but I question him.
And the question, in my tradition is allowed. I may question God. What I … should I do … I question him. Does he answer (clears throat) … excuse me … I don’t, I don’t think so … or maybe he does but I don’t know it.
I think I told you that according to a great Hassidic master Rabbi Nachman … the forerunner, so to speak of Kafka, Kafka learned from him. And he said, “It happens that a person is asking a question in one place. And maybe a hundred years later another person, in another place, asks another question. Not knowing that the second question is an answer to the first.”
HEFFNER: Is that why to each question that I ask … you ask a question in return?
WIESEL: Of course. Look, I like questions because the word “quest” is in “question”. I love that word. What are we doing? Even you and I … true … or retain our friendship … if not taking part in the same quest. It can be a quest for truth … a quest for answers. A quest for more questions? A quest for hope, for meaning. It is the quest that defines me. It is not what I find, but what I try to absorb and to confront.
HEFFNER: But I think also of … some very, very specific matters. I think of your relationship, not with your God … but let us say with Israel and whether at all you have changed your mind, you ideas … I know not your feelings.
WIESEL: No, I really don’t … because Israel is not simply a nation that was born sixty or sixty-five years ago.
Israel’s history goes back two hundred years … two thousand years at least, when the Jewish people had a homeland. The kingdom, a monarchy or a republic … but it cannot simply isolate the present from the past.
HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean about that.
WIESEL: If we don’t, if we don’t remember what was there … what was in Jerusalem before today … we don’t understand why we are attached to Jerusalem … to stones? To buildings? It is because Jerusalem … to our generation and the ones before … it, it means something.
It’s where God chose to dwell invisibly. Just like that … invisibly … in a special place. And today, for instance, we know exactly where the, where the temple was and you know where the saint of saints … the holiest place in the world.
But only once a year the high priest had the right to enter for one minute … and, and to utter God’s name and to ask in a prayer for the welfare of the people and the world.
And now, if you go there you can see it, literally, you can see where that place is. And each time I go I shiver. Because I have 2,000 years in that moment.
HEFFNER: But moments lead to minutes …
WIESEL: Yeah …
HEFFNER: … and minutes lead to hours and hours lead sometimes to catastrophe and I … that’s why I said matters profane to … can you separate your sense of history and religion, if you will, from relationships between nations?
WIESEL: I may formulate it differently. I don’t believe that life is made of years, life is made of moments. And each moment is special and specific.
When, let’s say … when you met for the first time a beautiful woman and you made her your wife. Then you discovered, let’s say, the philosophy of Descartes or Spinoza, or Pascal or when for the first time you had a program on television … how many … fifty or sixty years ago … the first time … all the first time.
And the same thing there is this, this newness … and the originality of a moment. Some moments are great, other’s not. Some moments are filled with joy, others not.
But the sum of these moments is life. Or the history of my being. And therefore I say, but moments, not minutes. Minutes is true … a minute can be something.
But the moment has almost a metaphysical importance, metaphysical weight, metaphysical outlook. And there, yes … I know, but the moment you start, for instance, judging history today … from the realistic viewpoint … and also for the ethical … the ethical viewpoint … naturally, of course, I have problems, certainly.
Israel, and I am totally attached to Israel … I never lived in Israel, but I see myself, really as one who, who loves Israel and whenever I go to Jerusalem … I, I go there trembling because … as if it were the first time.
So, it’s very special. And now I know that there is also a political dimension to all that. There are Palestinians, I cannot ignore Palestinians, I have no right … no desire to ignore their … some of the plight of some Palestinians … of course.
And then I tried my best to do something to bring, let’s say, those communities together … if I can … or at least to understand the situation …
HEFFNER: Do you think you do, now?
WIESEL: Oh, on one hand … yes. On one level, of course I do. It’s … you cannot live without history and when I go back to history I find some strange applications to the moment.
If the … at that time, I remember … in … at that time they didn’t speak about Palestinians, they spoke only about Arabs. And then in 1947 when the United Nations adopted the Resolution of Partition … if they had accepted that plan there would have been nothing. Israel would still be a very, very small nation. Jerusalem internationalized … the airport of Leda in the Arab side … Jaffa … the Arab … belonging to the Arab … to the Arab … Palestine. Why didn’t they do it? I don’t know.
So therefore I think, oh, yes I understand, but still … I would prefer, really with all my heart to (clears throat) to view and to … being able to testify …to bear witness, to peace … real peace between those two communities.
HEFFNER: Peace between those two communities … Elie, I, I saw the other day comments that you made about Syria and about that whole horrid situation. And I wonder what is it that you would like to see the world do?
WIESEL: To stop it.
HEFFNER: Stop it.
WIESEL: Just stop it. If the whole … if there were really a summit meeting … the problem is now Russia and China, for instance, support Syria. Why? How could they? How? But they do and therefore all of a sudden, there’s a conflict between America and Russia. On that?
Everybody knows what al-Assad is doing. We have it … witnesses on film. From, from journalists and they are today’s witnesses, today’s prophets.
Why don’t they? They could. And therefore I came out with an idea … I said that, that one day it would stop, it has to. At that time Assad will have to be brought to Hague, to the Hague and, and be indicted. Indicted for accomplishing crimes against humanity, by killing his own people.
I think that will frighten him. Because it’s something that, that crime and that procedure is something which has no parallel … that there is no way … look what’s happening with those in Serbia …
WIESEL: … when they have brought … they all are being brought to the Hague. And, and … it’s something to be condemned by the whole world. For the whole word … condemnation.
From the Jewish point of view … if you are an enemy of humanity …
HEFFNER: Does it concern you that what we did at Nuremburg did not put an end to this kind of brutality.
WIESEL: It … (clears throat) it concerns me … so that … does this mean that we shouldn’t do it … I think … it concerns me.
Look, we know each other … I, I … in 1945 when we spoke about it … I was really crazily optimistic on certain issues. I was convinced there would never be anti-Semitism because we know … we knew in ’45 … anti-Semitism led to Auschwitz. It wasn’t the only element … but we thought without anti-Semitism there would have been no Auschwitz.
At that time we were convinced no more war … no more conflict … no more hunger.
HEFFNER: So you have changed your mind.
WIESEL: No, I have not changed. I still believe that the world was capable and could be capable today to do certain things for its own salvation.
HEFFNER: So your sense of the nature of human nature has not changed.
WIESEL: Oh, I have learned … I’m a good student, you know that. In class I’m a better student than teacher … I’m a good student. And, of course, human nature, why not … it should have, it should have changed human nature. To know, let’s say, you cannot torture children. And you cannot use torture against anyone. And certain things … don’t believe in death … death is never a solution. So, does it mean that I shouldn’t try again? And try again
HEFFNER: You will always try and try again … that’s why I should have known that when I asked you that first question … what the answer would be because you are a model of consistency here in terms of your very profound beliefs. That’s why … well, you and I in our little book of conversations I wrote that in … in the, in the preface that we approach things from two such different points of view. And I admire yours.
WIESEL: But I don’t think so. I think we have the same point of view … we, we express them differently.
HEFFNER: Elie that’s why you’re a master at words …
HEFFNER: … that you, you can say that we23 ’re not. You, you insist upon that glass being half full and I admit I see that it’s half empty.
WIESEL: Both are true.
HEFFNER: (Laugh) Yes, indeed … both are true.
WIESEL: It depends where you … you direct your, your eyes.
HEFFNER: But where you live, it depends upon what you grasp to make the basis on which you live.
WIESEL: It’s not only … it’s really … it’s our attitude towards others. Always.
I am not defined by my attitude towards myself. But by my attitude towards other human beings … some of them very close, my family, my grandchildren, my friends … you included, naturally … but … not but I … you know, what I do to myself really doesn’t concern me that much.
HEFFNER: I don’t understand that.
WIESEL: (Sigh) I am not alone in this world, God alone is alone. And therefore I must be concerned with those that surround me. Or that I see … anyway with other people. I cannot say simply I, therefore, take care only of myself and therefore I’m plagued by my own curses and find solutions only for my own self … come on, how can I live like that? How could anyone live like that? A society. We are not hermits, we do not live in the desert. Or in the caves of the mountains of, of Greece. We don’t do that.
HEFFNER: But we act that way, Elie.
WIESEL: We shouldn’t. We shouldn’t. Therefore we are here to say “Don’t” … don’t, it doesn’t, doesn’t work.” It does not enrich society. It does not help history. It doesn’t help anyone … those who hear us or those who read us, if we think only of ourselves.
HEFFNER: Do you think that in the history of mankind, the history you know points in the direction of … at any time … mankind embracing what you just said … the point of view … the philosophy?
WIESEL: No. (Laugh) No, of course not. But that, that doesn’t mean that I should do what others are doing or not doing. I … look, I’m alone in this respect. But even my loneliness should have meaning. And I say, “No, you are not alone” and therefore I am not alone. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here talking.
HEFFNER: You know, I remember years and years and years ago at this table Max Lerner, who’s been gone so long now … my asking him … we were talking about Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins recounting a story … of a White House Press Conference when a young reporter said, “Mr. President, what are you? Are you a Communist, are you a Fascist, are you a Socialist?”
And the President said, “Generalizing with small letters, I am a democrat and a christian”. He didn’t mean Christian as opposed to Muslim or Jew.
And I said to Max, “Max, how would you describe yourself?” And he said, “I’m a possibilist.” And that seems to be what you’re saying now.
WIESEL: MmmHmm … I would say “I’m a Jew” (laugh) … also I wouldn’t omit that I’m a Jew. As … the Jew in me wants to be universal. But I don’t want to be a universalist without my Jewishness.
HEFFNER: Is it your Jewishness that makes you a possibilist? That makes you think …
WIESEL: Look, I assume my identity. I assume what I am, what I inherited. To me, for instance, I don’t want to do anything … believe it or not … that would displease my parents or my grandparents. I think of them all the time. They’ve been … they all were killed. But for me … no.
To this day I think of them … would, would they say to me now “What you are doing is wrong?” Then I don’t do it.
HEFFNER: What a lovely, lovely thought … what a great faith to have.
WIESEL: I, I think this is my tradition … our tradition, too, the Jewish tradition.
HEFFNER: You’re trying to make me understand … that that is the part of our tradition that I should …
WIESEL: Look …
HEFFNER: … identify with.
WIESEL: … maybe our tradition because this is what my father said, this is what my grandfather said. That, again … he also said what his parents said, his grandparents … sure.
So I do, I do what he and they would do and I say what he and they would say.
HEFFNER: Elie … we have just a couple of minutes left … and you’ve promised me that we will sit here again and discuss the book you have written from the hard physical time that you had with a heart operation of major proportions.
And I can’t wonder though now whether I might ask … as you experienced that … did these same thoughts occur to you? Where these, where these … was this identification what got you through, in common parlance.
WIESEL: I don’t know that they got me through, but their … I faced them … as I … it happened very fast … very, very fast … I just came back from Israel … and I went to my doctor, we had made the appointment much earlier … and he gave me a clean check-up … and all of a sudden … three days later I was already in the hospital … under the knife. And when I saw my wife and my son, who came all of a sudden to be there with me and when they began moving me to the operating room (THERE IS A LOUD NOISE) I wasn’t sure I would see them again.
And then I also thought … whom I will see now … maybe … those who abandoned me …
HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by that.
WIESEL: Those who I left and they left me … during those dark times …
HEFFNER: What did you learn?
WIESEL: Oh, I learned a lot, really. You know I told you I wrote a memoir on that called Open Heart.
HEFFNER: Which you promised you will …
HEFFNER: … talk about with me here.
WIESEL: It came, it came out in France already … and here in the Fall, I think. Of course, you are the first … naturally … it’s a kind of literature, if I would compare it to anything I had written, it would be to Night …
WIESEL: Yeah. I was so close to death.
HEFFNER: Does Night remain … I know it remains a book that my children and my children’s children and my students and my student’s children read … when was it written. When did you write Night?
WIESEL: Ten years after. I was waiting ten years. I needed that silence in me … total silence. And I wrote it and then published it. And it is that book … if I had not written Night … I would not have written anything … anything else.
HEFFNER: I remember, Elie, when we discussed Night once and it’s in the Archives …
WIESEL: And in our conversations.
HEFFNER: … and, and, and in our conversation … but when I had the temerity to ask you if you would read those pages when you described your father’s death … and I thought to myself, “I can’t do this, I mustn’t do this … but I must do it, too” and I wondered if the director had the good sense to be in on Elie Wiesel’s face as he read … and he did.
WIESEL: Did he?
HEFFNER: Did he … he did, indeed, and it’s a magnificent …
WIESEL: I haven’t see it … no.
HEFFNER: You’ve got to see it … go to our archive and, and, and look at it.
Elie, you’re promising me that you’re going to come and talk about this here …and I don’t know why it should have been published in France before it saw the light …
WIESEL: I write it in French … I write it in French always …
HEFFNER: … of day here.
WIESEL: … still.
HEFFNER: … still do?
WIESEL: But, you know … I, I keep my promises, you know that.
HEFFNER: I do, indeed. And I’m delighted … that I think I should be getting the sign now that this program has come to an end and I trust that you will come back soon about the book … Elie Wiesel, thank you for joining me again today.
WIESEL: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.