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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

Elie Wiesel remembers.

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 and cranny.

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."

During, there was nothing -- not even a plea to or a bargain with God. Wiesel feels He had nothing to do with his survival.

"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 pain."

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 his writing.

"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.