An unforgettable fire
Holocaust survivor and Nobel
Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel believes that the opposite of love is not
hate -- but rather, indifference.
By Curt Schleier
What others deny or try to forget, Elie
Wiesel does not. And more than half a century later, the pain is still
there: the loss of parents, siblings and friends in the camps, villages
cleansed, a people nearly wiped from the face of the earth. Time does
not heal all wounds. Reminders of the past are everywhere, inescapable.
When he washes his hands in the morning, the blue tattoo on his left forearm
remains indelible . . . A-7713.
Yet he goes on.
"What is the alternative?" asks the Boston
University professor, who will speak to the TCU community on Sept. 20
(campus officials expect a sellout Daniel-Meyer Coliseum crowd). "If I
could repress it I would, and often life means to repress pain. But this
is like an open wound. Nevertheless, you have to continue. Or else you
become a prisoner of that pain."
It is a subject he appears uncomfortable
with. "I never speak of my pain," Wiesel says. "I speak of other people's
pain. That's my mission. To speak of the other people's pain. People of
the past and people of the present. That's why I'm so involved with all
these human rights activities. There are so many prisoners. So many people
are starving, suffering, despairing."
Wiesel -- author, teacher, Nobel Peace laureate,
conscience of the world -- is sitting in his office on the Upper East Side
of Manhattan. The room is covered floor to ceiling with books. Magazines
and sundry files are piled neatly on the floor, in every available nook
Eventually, you notice, too, that he is
dressed in a blue suit and tie; that he is slender, thin really, just
a few pounds above gaunt; and that when he speaks, it's in a whisper so
soft it's as though the words are timid, afraid to reveal themselves.
But all this, the clothing, the surroundings,
how quietly he speaks, you notice later. First and foremost, his eyes
capture your attention. They are large, dark, and limpid, gateways to
the very depths of his soul -- and they are ever so sad. Wiesel knows he
has a reputation for sadness, but believes it inaccurate.
"I'm not at all sad," he proclaims.
"My lectures are full of laughs. People laugh and laugh and laugh.
I like humor."
But despite his protests to the contrary,
Wiesel permeates sadness. It surrounds him, like an oversized winter coat,
covering him from head to foot. It's as much a part of his being as his
arms and legs, a fact his friends acknowledge -- even if he doesn't. Gary
Rosenblatt remembers the first time he saw Wiesel.
It was over 25 years ago, long before Wiesel
was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize.
Rosenblatt, currently editor of The Jewish Week in New York, was a fledgling
journalist at the time, attending a symposium in Florida. He spied a man
across the room who looked a lot like Wiesel.
"A lot?" Rosenblatt asks rhetorically.
"He looked just like him. But then I thought it couldn't be him.
That man is smiling."
John Silber, the chancellor of Boston University
and a friend, makes what at first seems an unlikely analogy. He compares
Wiesel's eyes to the face of a long-time drinker. A drunk can't spend
15 or 20 years drinking, Silber says, and not have it visible on his or
her face. In the same way, "you can't go through the horror and not
have it show. I don't think you've lived the life he's lived and not have
it show. The remarkable thing is that his eyes are sad -- and not angry."
The horror. It always comes back to the
horror. Wiesel was just 15 years old when he, his family and the other
Jews in the small Transylvanian town of Sighet were rounded up and transported
in cattle cars to Auschwitz.
"Women to the left, men to the right,"
they were told when they arrived. He never saw his mother or younger sister
again. He and his father were put to work. He has no idea how he survived.
In the beginning, his sole goal, his soul's goal, was to save his father.
"I knew if I died," Wiesel said,
"he died." But when his father passed -- sadly just three months
before their camp was liberated -- "I didn't care at all." Wiesel,
who has written over 40 books, both novels and works of non-fiction, understands
drama. "I could invent all kinds of nice words to say, that I wanted
to live to testify, to bare witness. It wasn't true. Afterwards. But not
During, there was nothing -- not even a
plea to or a bargain with God. Wiesel feels He had nothing to do with
"If God was good enough to perform
miracles for me, he could have performed miracles for many others, too,
who were worthier than I, better than I, purer than I. "It was an
accident, a sheer accident."
He was still a child when liberated and
transferred with others to an orphanage in France. There, Wiesel began
the recuperative process, a return to living. It was far easier than one
might imagine. "The truth is," Wiesel has written, "it
was not that difficult -- less difficult than adjusting to death."
He was reunited with his two older sisters,
studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and quite accidentally got involved
in journalism. He wanted to emigrate to Palestine, and when that proved
impossible, went to work for a French newspaper sponsored by a militant
Zionist organization, the Irgun. Journalism suited him.
Subsequently, he then went to work as Paris
correspondent for an Israeli newspaper, and in 1956 moved to the U.S.
to serve as the paper's American correspondent. He became a citizen and
in 1969 married another survivor, Marion, originally from Vienna, and
they had a son, Elisha.
And there matters might have ended, anonymously,
among the thousands of survivors seeking to carve out an existence, desperately
trying to put the past behind them. But not so with Wiesel. He attributed
his survival to a simple roll of the cosmic dice; he felt he needed to
give his life some significance, some purpose.
"I said to myself, ÔSomeone else could
have taken my place. Since it's I, I must do something with that -- teach,
sensitize." It began in 1958 with the publication of Night, first
in France and then gradually around the world. It was a book so dark,
so unsparingly honest, so, yes, sad, some refused to -- or didn't want
to -- believe it could be true.
In fact, it is a book so rooted in reality,
that Wiesel waited a decade before starting to write it -- not because
he couldn't write it sooner, but because he was afraid to. A student of
the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, which is in part rooted in numerology,
he knew words can open the gates of heaven -- or hell.
"I know the dangers inherent in words,"
he said. "I wanted to be sure they would not affect other people
in a way they shouldn't."
It was, says Rosenblatt, his greatest
achievement, raising an issue the world wanted to sweep under its collective
carpet. Wiesel took what had been a scholarly term, the Holocaust, and
moved it into the common vernacular. "He
gave a voice to the hundreds of thousands of survivors, and he reminded
people who didn't know or didn't care."
Sitting in his room, surrounded by his
books, it's easy to understand why some may consider the book fiction.
He talks about it and his life in the quiet, reassuring almost emotionless
tone of a physician trying to calm a panicked patient. It's almost as
though his life happened to someone else. In fact, he never speaks of
his own pain. Only when pressed does he admit time and distance don't
ease the pain.
"It's only worse," he says. "Deep
down, the passing of days and nights and years only makes it sharper,
more acute." Lately, in fact, he's noticed he dreams more and more
about the past. Other survivors tell him the same thing. "Nevertheless
you have to continue. You must continue or you become a prisoner of that
So he ignores his own and concentrates
on the pain of others. Always others.
"I look and see the swollen bellies
and haunted eyes of the very young in Ethiopia, in Cambodia, in South
America," he said. "I could have been that child. I was that
child. I must make the gesture."
He has traveled the world to fight injustice.
Chancellor Silber recalls how in 1984 he asked Wiesel to get involved
with the Kissinger Commission, investigating atrocities committed against
the Meskito Indians of Nicaragua. "He immediately flew with a man
of my acquaintance down to Honduras, took a little plane to get as close
as he could. Then they got in a dugout canoe to get to the Meskito Indians,
met with them and flew back to issue his report. Without stopping, he
got on a plane to Paris to speak to French government officials who were
planning on selling helicopter gunships to the Sandanistas. He told them
what was going on, and Mitterand canceled the helicopters. That's a good
example of the way he becomes involved."
Wiesel and his wife Marion sponsor a series
of symposia around the world called "Anatomy of Hate." In 1995,
for example, he brought together in Venice leaders of groups elsewhere
locked in combat -- Israelis and Palestinians; Catholics and Protestants
from both Northern and the Republic of Ireland, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats,
whites and blacks from both Africa and the U.S.
"He creates a neutral space where
putative enemies can meet each other and begin to perceive and cherish
their mutual humanity and lay the foundation for future friendships,"
Dr. Silber says. Wiesel organizes these conferences because he feels "hate
is destructive even as a concept. So I try to fight it. Anger I don't
mind. Anger I have enough of. Anger is good; it can be [a] creative [force].
Good works of art can come out of anger. But nothing comes out of hate."
His monotone whisper rises only when he's
asked if he's forgiven the Germans.
"I don't forgive," he says sharply.
"Who am I to forgive? No one authorized me to forgive!"
But almost as quicky, that flash of emotion
is gone. "But I do think that the young people today deserve something
better, something more, something other than my despair. What I am trying
to say is do not pass judgement on an entire people. I do not believe
in collective guilt. I have students in my class who are so good, so pure,
so committed, it's a pleasure looking at them, to see how they work. I
can imagine the burden on them, being German."
There is nothing disingenuous about him
when he says that. He is so pure in spirit that he really is concerned
about the "burden" on the children of his enemies. In fact,
it isn't so much that he sees light where others see only darkness, he
seeks it out, won't stop until he finds it and that sustains him.
"I have to tell the whole story [of
the Holocaust]," he said. "The whole story contains some sparks,
as well. There were people who didn't just stand by, who saved Jews during
the war. There weren't many, but a few. There were good people every where,
and I cling to the few. It's enough. It's a despairing need to find hope."
He's determined to pass on that hope in
"After Night, in my books, if I do
not find a way out [of despair], I do not publish it," he says. "I
keep the manuscript until I find a way out."
Two years ago, Boston University, where
he teaches philosophy and literature, held a celebration to commemorate
Wiesel's 70th birthday as well as his life and work. The famous came to
honor him, but perhaps most telling were the tributes from students and
former students, who spoke about his inspiration and his modesty.
The simplicity of your heart bound us
together, wrote one student. From you I have learned to bear witness
to the truth, so that the truth will not be silent. The Nobel Committee
echoed those sentiments when it awarded him the 1986 Peace Prize, calling
him "one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an
age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the
world. Wiesel is a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace,
atonement and human dignity."
The praise washes off him like dew in the
hot summer sun, quickly, before it has a chance to penetrate.
"I am not a tsadik," he
insists, using the Hebrew word for righteous person. "A tsadik
is a just man. I'm just a student, a very good student. . . .There is
a tsadik in every one of us, you as well as I."
His modesty is genuine, especially since
the Nobel Prize, three, four, five invitations come in every day, requests
to speak here, to march there, to sign this and that petition.
"I'm invited all over the world,"
he said. "It's not me. They're inviting the Nobel Laureate. I know
this very well. "Nothing can be more gratifying than knowing that
something you've done has moved people. But I prefer not to think about
it. If you think about it, you take yourself too seriously."
How does he fight vanity?
"That's very easy," he says.
"I close my eyes and see myself from before. I see myself as a young
student or I see myself with my father. That is truth."
Curt Schleier is a writer and editor
who contributes to national publications such as Investor's Business Daily
and Biography Magazine. His
latest book, How to Think Like the World's Great Masters of Mergers and
Acquisitions, will be published by McGraw Hill in November.