Elie Wiesel

Nobel Laureates … and the Future

VTR Date: June 19, 1988

Guest: Wiesel, Elie



Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Elie Wiesel
Title: “Nobel Laureates … And The Future”
VTR: 6/19/88

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Early in Camelot, when John F. Kennedy brought to a rather splendid dinner in our nation’s capitol an impressively distinguished group of the Western Hemisphere’s Nobel Prize winners, he called them, “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White house… with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined (here) alone.”

Well, a quarter century later my guest today went even further, bringing together in Paris in early 1988 more than 75 Nobel Laureates for an intensely provocative colloquium on mankind’s prospects for peace and human dignity in the 21st Century. And yet, just as the President had suggested, perhaps that Paris meeting, too, was “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together… ” with the possible exception of when Elie Wiesel, himself the much honored winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, talks with us alone. And I’ve asked him to do so again here today on THE OPEN MIND.

Indeed, I want so much to talk with Mr. Wiesel about his Nobel colleagues, the wisdom they shared, the understanding they generated in Paris, that I resolved not even to ask him about his newest novel, Twilight, published by Summit Books. And yet I am so moved by his fiction all over again — as I thought I never could be once more, having been touched so profoundly by his many other writings about the madness of the Holocaust that first I want to ask Mr. Wiesel about his opening quotation from Maimonides: “the world couldn’t exist without madmen.” Does this mean that even Maimonides was mad in his insight? Mr. Wiesel?

Wiesel: Maimonides was not mad. But he praised madness. The madness that he praised is the one that I praise, a kind of mystical madness, a human madness in an inhuman society. To believe in man in certain times is madness. To believe in society and its future, is madness. And to try to do something alone, when all the odds are against us is madness. So, of course, this madness that Maimonides is praising, and I believe in, is a sacred madness.

Heffner: How does that conform though to your assembling, in Paris in early 1988 so many men who… and women I presume, too … who do not represent madness but represent science, the antithesis of madness.

Wiesel: Well, the project itself was a mad project. (Laughter) I… I’ll tell you how I had it. I came back from the Soviet Union in 1986, in October, where I had gone after receiving the announcement of the Nobel Prize. And I realized there are many things one can do when one is a Nobel Laureate. Somehow the doors open, somehow people listen, you pick up the phone and people answer. And we could bring so much consolation to so many people in the Soviet Union then. We took out people from jail, we got visas for those who had no way of getting visas. So on the way back I saw Mitterand, Francois Mitterand, who as you know… as you met, is a friend of ours. And I told him, “you know, you can do certain things with the Nobel Prize, and why not bring many people together. Twenty, thirty, what we could do. And then I suggested to him, why not bring together all of them? Imagine the moral impact that our conference would have. And I even told some of his aides that I am ready to participate in the expenses. I thought he would say, or they would say, “come on, Elie, no, we don’t need your money.” But they didn’t say that.

Heffner: (Laughter)


Wiesel: So I got stuck with, I think, half of the bill. Fortunately, really fortunately, I got help from friends and especially from a marvelous organization called Mutual of America here, and the President of that organization is a marvelous man called Bill Flynn, and they helped quite a lot. But this idea, I thought, I don’t know, maybe twenty will come. Thirty will come. Seventy-five came. And it was something very, very special. To see these men and women, there were women, too, who actually have reached the highest point in society, or in humanity. Because, by definition, they are the greatest. And you would expect all these superstars, all these egos to create tensions. There were no tensions. I have never seen that. After all, you and I have attended enough academic conferences, and there are always tensions… always conflicts. And somehow it was smooth, it was gentle, it was human and humanizing. It lasted four days and three nights. And Mitterand and I co-chaired it, co-sponsored it. And it was very, very special.

Heffner: But you know, it’s so interesting to me, Elie, that the fact is that most of these Nobel Laureates were, of course, scientists. They were the intellectual counterparts of those scientists and technocrats who in this century have contributed as much to barbarism as to man’s progress. What in the world did you expect to get from these counterparts of those who have helped destroy mankind or attempt to destroy mankind?

Wiesel: Well, that’s why they came there, really. I think they all feel it. They feel responsible for whatever happened in history. And they felt that since they have done so much, now they have to do something more. And to meet… the marvelous thing was that they didn’t know one another. And for the first time, they met. And they realized that they have the same concerns, the same fears, maybe the same hopes. And what was also interesting is to see that scientists did not only attend the workshops on science, but on culture, on ethics, on peace. And the other way around, writers went to sessions on science. And they all felt that the world is in danger. And, therefore, maybe an alarm must be sounded.

Heffner: Well, let me focus on those who were the scientists, if I may. What you expected from them and, indeed, then what you got from them. Because my understanding of the role of scientists in this century, is that they have contributed so much to man’s progress, but have become apolitical when the matter of the application of their technology lead to the destruction of six million Jews, lead to the destruction or coming destruction of the atmosphere and so on.

Wiesel: I’m not entirely sure that I would go that far. I am also critical, as you are, and skeptical. After all, Einstein and Oppenheimer produced or helped produce a nuclear bomb. And yet, after the bomb exploded, both Oppenheimer and Einstein became the greatest antagonists of nuclear weapons. And they, I think, more than anyone in the world, more than any politician, more than any moralist… they managed to create an awareness of the nuclear danger… Oppenheimer and Einstein. And probably the same thing is true of many scientists today. They feel that what they have done, they have opened… no, but what did, I think Bachelard said about… about the nuclear weapon, he said, “Prometheus stole the fire from God, and we still live to regret it.” They stole a secret from nature, from history, from our own mind, and we live to regret it. But it’s not entirely so because they have also done great things… nuclear medicine, after all. The peace, the useful, the useful practices of nuclear energy, these affect we can do many things for humankind. Not with nuclear weapons, but against nuclear weapons. Simply with nuclear energy. And where could we be today?

Heffner: Well, let me… let me turn that question around and ask you, and I don’t know what your answer is going to be, if you had to choose whether you would do with the science of the twentieth century and its atrocities, or without the benefits of science in the twentieth century, and its atrocities, which would you choose?

Wiesel: Dick, why must I choose? I would, if I have to choose, which means you give me the power to choose…

Heffner: Yes, indeed. The moral power.

Wiesel: …all right, then I would say I want only the benefits, but none of the threats.


Heffner: Well, I ask you to choose because we’re talking less about the past, and more about the future. And one can assume… I presume… that the future will be not that much different in terms of the development and the application of science.

Wiesel: If there is a future.

Heffner: You’re worse than I am.

Wiesel: Oh, I’m, I’m very pessimistic. I mean I realize, really, that the world could go up in flames any minute, how can I be optimistic?

Heffner: Thanks to what men have written?

Wiesel: No, but, but look, that’s a game. Let’s be honest. Those scientists are also a result of culture. That means they are a result of what people have written. You cannot, you cannot take away literature, let us say, or philosophy, or sociology, or poetry, or music from the equation. If science has reached the level of quasi-perfection where it is now, it’s also because of literature, and philosophy, and poetry. So we are all in it. You and I.

Heffner: But the problem that I see is a problem that we used to talk about. You, as a victim of the Holocaust, and I, in this country, as an observer, if one could call oneself an observer of that monstrosity, about a nation that was, in its art, in its literature, in its overall culture, so, so advanced, and yet was the nation that imposed the atrocities of the Holocaust upon us.

Wiesel: We have been saying it, you and I for so many years, but I don’t have the answer for that. I still can’t understand it, Dick. I can’t understand how a person could appreciate Bach, and love Schiller and study Goethe, I can’t understand that.

Heffner: How about, be that culturally attuned, as some of our great scientists were in this country, and develop a weapon that was then used for such incredibly destructive purposes?

Wiesel: The same. If I had to choose then, during the war, I think I would have chosen the way Roosevelt did. Einstein wanted it, too. After all, Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt, asking him to, you know, to start the operation… the Manhattan Project. Why, because Hitler and his scientists had already begun working on their project. Just imagine Hitler with a nuclear weapon.

Heffner: My problem is, of course, Elie, that I agree with. And yet… and so I end up asking the same questions.

Wiesel: I have no answer to that.

Heffner: But in the, in the introduction to the publication of the Conference, I believe it was that when the Director General of UNESCO talked about Bertrand Russell, said Bertrand Russell made… wrote, “that thanks to science and technology, mankind is united in evil, but not yet united for good. That people have learned the technique of mutual destruction, but not the more desirable technique of world-wide cooperation.” And, of course, the thought that occurred to me was, to what degree did the proceedings of your Conference give the lie to that Bertrand Russell notion?

Wiesel: Well, because people were united, not in fear, but in hope. There was a hope and that’s why I insist that the Conference was a very special Conference, was a unique Conference, where people who represent so many areas, so many disciplines, so many endeavors, so many countries, so many centuries, and they got together because they felt that not only is the fear the same that motivates our endeavors, but there must be hope for the 21st century. We were thinking of our children and about our children. But we all the time had before us was really the fate of our children. That means we have no right to let this century, which is the most barbaric century in history, we have no right to let it decline, and fail without us trying to learn some legacy from it. That the legacy should not only be a legacy of cruelty, of what human beings can do and did to one another, but also the legacy of what one individual can do to stop that mechanism of terror and death.

Heffner: You know, when you talk about one individual, as I read the proceedings of your Paris meeting, I noted that at the closing session, you concluded with a story, and I think I’ve only done this once before, to ask… I think it was with Neil Postman when he was here, if he would read something, and he said, “read on television, that’s a contradiction in terms”, but I wonder if you would read this.


Wiesel: Well, I did because first of all, I cannot, I cannot speak without telling a story and most of my stories are Hasidic stories, so there to all the Nobel Laureates, live television in France and to Europe, why not tell a Hasidic story, except it was different. “One of the just men came to Sodom, determined to save its inhabitants from sin and punishment. Night and day he walked the streets and markets, protesting against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listened and smiled ironically. Then they stopped listening. He no longer even amused them. The killer went on killing, the wise kept silent as if there were no just man in their midst. One day a child, moved by compassion for the unfortunate teacher, approached him with these words, “poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don’t you see that it is hopeless”? “Yes, I see,” answered the Just Man. ‘Then why do you go on”? “I’ll tell you why. In the beginning, my child, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. But if I still shout today, if I still scream, louder and louder, it is to prevent them from ultimately changing me.”

Heffner: What was the response of your Nobel, your noble Nobel audience?

Wiesel: Well, first they were, of course, surprised, shocked because one doesn’t tell Hasidic stories to Nobel Laureates.

Heffner: (Laughter).

Wiesel: But I think they understood because really this story reflects not only my own ideas of our mission, our vocation, our work, but it also reflects theirs. Very often they must reach a point of despair, thinking after all, the threat to humankind is not a scientific threat, it’s a political threat. Weapons always exist. But the decision to use them came from political circles. And, therefore, we all knew that actually it’s enough for one madman somewhere, I mean not a sacred madman, but a real madman, a dangerous madman to get hold of nuclear weapons and then, because of a capricious desire, the whole planet really would be destroyed. And, therefore, these scientists say at least one thing we must be aware of… of our own place in history, that we shall not be changed, we refused to be changed.

Heffner: Do you think they’re willing to be the teacher who understands, lest he be changed, lest they be changed, they must continue to give expression to their points of view?

Wiesel: I see myself not as a teacher, by the way, I see myself as a child who is asking the question. I’m always asking questions. I believe in questions, not in answers, as you know. And I’m the student, I’m the pupil, I’m the disciple. Very rarely do I see myself in the role of a teacher. But I think that all of these Nobel Laureates who attended the Conference realized that there is so much that one must do and cannot do. And, therefore, it is the question that will remain, not the answer.

Heffner: Do you think that this group is, for some reason, more likely to be a more productive group in terms of bringing the sensitivities that you’ve described to bear upon this next century?


Wiesel: Productive, I’m not sure. But impressive, probably. There’s a myth, there’s a mystique about all that. And, therefore, when you have so many people together for the first time in history, that their words, after all, were being heard. People listen differently to a group such as this, then to another group of scientists, simply scientists. But also again, there was something happening there. I’ll give you an example. Henry Kissinger, in the beginning didn’t want to come. He said he’s afraid because his ideas about disarmament are not their ideas. And he was afraid of embarrassing me. We are good friends. And I insisted. I wanted him there, so he came. I even gave him a place to actually give a keynote address, and it was one of the most, really the most moving moments of the Conference. There was a different Kissinger, the human being came out. So much so that the next day a Peace Prize-winning lady from Ireland came up to him and she said, “Dr. Kissinger, for years I maligned you. I attacked you. I was against you, everywhere. And I want to apologize.”

Heffner: When I read the few pages of his speech, I was so enormously moved that I couldn’t believe it was the Henry Kissinger I had read and heard about and hissed and booed for so long.

Wiesel: Well, I’m telling you that was something, an important by-product of the mood of this Conference, of the sincerity of the Conference. And look, again, I must tell you there are good things in the world. I couldn’t have pulled it off without friends who gave me the means, like Flynn of Mutual of America and I couldn’t have pulled it off without Mitterand, who gave me his means and his prestige and the logistics and the Elyssee Palace, everything that occurred in the Elyssee Palace for four days… we took over the whole palace. There are good things. People, when they are compelled, by themselves or by their friends to do something, they do it.

Heffner: And as they left? What did you anticipate?

Wiesel: Oh, I want to have another conference, next year. I’m not sure having everybody there because I’m going to focus now. The first Conference was called, “Facing the 21st Century: Threats and Promises.” The next one I want to call the “International Conference on Hatred.” I think I spoke to you about it last year. And bring together people from all the disciplines, but not only Nobel Laureates. And discuss hatred, religious hatred, ethnic hatred, racial hatred, economic hatred, prejudice, fanaticism, intolerance because this is the most important issue confronting society today, and humankind everywhere. And therefore the idea is to bring a hundred people, maybe ten or twenty Nobel Laureates, who know something about the subject, but not scientists, who don’t know much, or don’t care about it. But other people, psychiatrists, theologians, media people, and bring together this hundred, hundred-fifty people for three or four days, and discuss it. What is the texture, what is the fabric of hatred and how does one dissipate, dissect hatred? So, we have all kinds of offers where to have it. One of the offers was in Jerusalem. It’s a dangerous place, but because it’s so dangerous, maybe that’s the place where it should be held.

Heffner: Let’s address ourselves to that. In terms of your life experiences, in terms of this Nobel Conference in Paris, in terms of your hopes… you must be thinking in terms of change, you must be thinking in terms of changing, not the madness of Maimonides, but the madness of what we do to each other, the bestiality of man toward man, and you’re convinced, I gather that dialogue contributes, perhaps, to change. The dialogue has been going on forever and ever and ever. No? Or would you feel that it is not.

Wiesel: No, no, not really. In Twilight, in the novel that you mentioned so graciously in the beginning, I do show Biblical characters, people who think they are Biblical characters. I also mention Cain. The problem of Cain and Abel really was that there was no dialogue between Cain and Abel. In the Bible it’s said, “And Cain spoke to Abel.” And we don’t even know whether Abel listened. There was no dialogue. So I believe in dialogue. I believe if people talk and they talk sincerely, as human beings, with the same respect that one owes to a close friend or to God, something will come out of that, something good.

Heffner: You feel that in the dialogue on hatred, our mutual friend Ted Koppel brought together Israelis and Palestinians on ABC, sometime back. Do you think that was an exercise in futility?


Wiesel: Oh, no. It was important. It was important because they spoke to each other, after all, with millions of people listening in and Ted did an extraordinary job in bringing them together. But I would like to bring together Israelis and Arabs, Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, Hungarians and Rumanians and so forth, from all over the world. Workshops, wherever violence is rooted in hate and violence finds its expression in murder, in violence leading to assassination, they should come and speak. Because when does violence occur? When language stops. When language dies, then violence becomes another language.

Heffner: I think that notion is something that we have not taught ourselves, we have not taught our children. An occasional great novel teaches it to us, the lot of Billy Budd who couldn’t speak and others. Do you feel that you have made progress toward this Conference on Hatred? Will we have it?

Wiesel: If I get the money, I think we will certainly have it. If I get the subsidies, I’m sure I will have it from foundations or from friends and I think there is no doubt we’re going to have it.

Heffner: In Jerusalem?

Wiesel: I hope in Jerusalem. And since we are talking on the record, you are hereby invited to attend it as a participant.

Heffner: I appreciate that. I also am interested that there was some concern for support… we only have thirty seconds left on this program… but I gather outside of Mutual, there was not that level of industrial support.

Wiesel: I don’t know where to go. I have never done fund-raising in my life. That’s why I gave my money, the Nobel money, to this foundation that I created. I don’t know how to do it. But other people know and I hope they will come forth and they will say, “all right, we will give you the money and let’s do it together.”

Heffner: Well, let’s hope that that brings forth the money and brings forth the conference and brings forth the results of dialogue as you hope there will be results of dialogue. Elie Wiesel, thank you again so much for joining me on THE OPEN MIND. 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 subject, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, 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 Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.