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If you like Elie Wiesel's story, you might also like:
Maya Angelou,
Ehud Barak,
Mikhail Gorbachev,
Nadine Gordimer,
Coretta Scott King,
Shimon Peres,
Albie Sachs,
John Sexton,
Wole Soyinka,
Desmond Tutu,
Lech Walesa
and Oprah Winfrey

Elie Wiesel can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Elie Wiesel's recommended reading: The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony and Other Stories

Elie Wiesel also appears in the videos:
Making a Better World: What is Your Responsibility to the Community?,

Challenges for the 21st Century

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Elie Wiesel in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Advocacy & Citizenship
Freedom and Justice

Related Links:
Wiesel Foundation
Official Bio
Nobel Prize

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Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel
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Elie Wiesel Interview

Nobel Prize for Peace

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  Elie Wiesel

It's hard for any of us to imagine what you experienced, as an adolescent, in the concentration camps. How did that affect and change what you did with your life?

Elie Wiesel: It affected me a lot. I cannot talk about myself. I like to talk about other people, not about myself, but I'll try to answer you.

Of course it had an overwhelming effect. After the war -- I was 15 when I entered the camp, I was 16 when I left it and all of a sudden you become an orphan and you have no one. I had a little sister and I knew, with my mother the first night that they were swept away by fire. My older sister I discovered by accident after the war in Paris, where I was in an orphanage. But to be an orphan -- you can become an orphan at 50, you are still an orphan. Very often I think of my father and my mother. At any important moment in my life, they are there thinking, "What an injustice." To date, I haven't written much about that period. Of my 40 books, maybe four or five deal with that period because I know that there are no words for it, so all I can try to do is to communicate the incommunicability of the event. Furthermore, I know that even if I found the words you wouldn't understand. It is not because I cannot explain that you won't understand, it is because you won't understand that I can't explain.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

The idea of the writer's mission, to be a witness, to be a messenger, was that part of your intention as a writer?

Elie Wiesel: I wasn't that ambitious really. I wanted to write. I wrote my first book in Yiddish. In 1956, it came out in Buenos Aires, and then in French in 1958, and in New York in 1960.

I wrote it, not for myself really. I wrote it for the other survivors who found it difficult to speak. And I wanted really to tell them, "Look, you must speak. As poorly as we can express our feelings, our memories, but we must try. We are not guaranteeing success, but we must guarantee effort." I wrote it for them, because the survivors are a kind of most endangered species. Every day, every day there are funerals. And I felt that there for a while they were so neglected, so abandoned, almost humiliated by society after the war.

Elie Wiesel Interview Photo

When I became Chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust in 1978, I wanted really to glorify the survivors. There wasn't a committee that I didn't appoint a survivor, because I felt they deserve it. The same reason I wrote is really for that mission. It's always afterwards that, in a way, your friends or your readers convince you that you went beyond that, that you are a messenger, and so forth. I didn't use those words, I used the words simply, "Look, we have to tell the story as best as we can. And we know that we won't succeed." I know I won't succeed. I know I haven't succeeded. Take the word "Holocaust." I am among the first, if not the first to use it in that context. By accident. I was working on an essay, a biblical commentary, and I wrote about the sacrifice, the binding of Isaac, by his father Abraham. In the Bible, there is a word in Hebrew ola, which means burned offering. I felt that's good. That's "holocaust." That's good because it's fire and father and son. Meaning [in the Bible, it was] the son who almost died, but in our case it was the father who died, not the son. The word had so many implications that I felt it was good. Then it became accepted, and everybody used it and then I stopped using it because it was abused. Everything was a holocaust all of a sudden. I heard myself on television once, a sportscaster on television speaking of the defeat of a sports team and he said, "Was that a holocaust!" My God! Everything became a holocaust. In Bosnia, I remember, they spoke about a holocaust. I went to Bosnia to see. I felt, if it is, I must move heaven and earth. Even if it isn't, I must move heaven and earth to prevent it, but at least not to use the word. Well, all of this really is not very easy, but why should it be?

After the war, you did not speak; you were not a witness, for ten years.

Elie Wiesel: I was. You know...

You can be a silent witness, which means silence itself can become a way of communication. There is so much in silence. There is an archeology of silence. There is a geography of silence. There is a theology of silence. There is a history of silence. Silence is universal and you can work within it, within its own parameters and its own context, and make that silence into a testimony. Job was silent after he lost his children and everything, his fortune and his health. Job, for seven days and seven nights he was silent, and his three friends who came to visit him were also silent. That must have been a powerful silence, a brilliant silence. You see, silence itself can be testimony and I was waiting for ten years, really, but it wasn't the intention. My intention simply was to be sure that the words I would use are the proper words. I was afraid of language.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What persuaded you to break that silence?

Elie Wiesel Interview Photo
Elie Wiesel: Oh, I knew ten years later I would do something. I had to tell the story. I was a young journalist in Paris. I wanted to meet the Prime Minister of France for my paper. He was, then, a Jew called Mendès-France. But he didn't offer to see me. I had heard that the French author François Mauriac -- a very great Catholic writer and Nobel Prize winner, a member of the Academy -- was his guru. Mauriac was his teacher. So I would go to Mauriac, the writer, and I would ask him to introduce me to Mendès-France.

Mauriac was an old man then, but when I came to Mauriac, he agreed to see me. We met and we had a painful discussion. The problem was that he was in love with Jesus. He was the most decent person I ever met in that field -- as a writer, as a Catholic writer. Honest, sense of integrity, and he was in love with Jesus. He spoke only of Jesus.

Whatever I would ask -- Jesus. Finally, I said, "What about Mendès-France?" He said that Mendès-France, like Jesus, was suffering. That's not what I wanted to hear. I wanted, at one point, to speak about Mendès-France and I would say to Mauriac, can you introduce me?

When he said Jesus again I couldn't take it, and for the only time in my life I was discourteous, which I regret to this day. I said, "Mr. Mauriac," we called him Maître, "ten years or so ago, I have seen children, hundreds of Jewish children, who suffered more than Jesus did on his cross and we do not speak about it." I felt all of a sudden so embarrassed. I closed my notebook and went to the elevator. He ran after me. He pulled me back; he sat down in his chair, and I in mine, and he began weeping. I have rarely seen an old man weep like that, and I felt like such an idiot. I felt like a criminal. This man didn't deserve that. He was really a pure man, a member of the Resistance. I didn't know what to do. We stayed there like that, he weeping and I closed in my own remorse. And then, at the end, without saying anything, he simply said, "You know, maybe you should talk about it."

He took me to the elevator and embraced me. And that year, the tenth year, I began writing my narrative. After it was translated from Yiddish into French, I sent it to him. We were very, very close friends until his death. That made me not publish, but write.

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