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Elie Wiesel

Interview: Elie Wiesel
Nobel Prize for Peace

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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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.

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.

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.

The book Night, was not easily published, was it?

Elie Wiesel: Neither in France nor here, in spite of Mauriac. He was the most famous author in Europe, and he brought it personally from publisher to publisher. They didn't want it. It was too morbid, they said. "Nobody wants to hear these stories." Finally, a small publisher (who, by the way, was also Beckett's publisher, which means he had courage) published it.

So we brought it to an American publisher. It went from publisher to publisher to publisher. All of them refused it. They gave the same reasons, until a small publisher picked it up. From 1960 to 1963, three years, it didn't sell 1500 copies. Nobody wanted to read it. It doesn't matter. I am not here to sell, I'm here to write.

Elie Wiesel Interview Photo
Childhood is a recurring theme in your writing. Could you tell us about yours?

Elie Wiesel: My childhood was really a childhood blessed with love and hope and faith and prayer. I come from a very religious home and in my little town I was not the only one who prayed and was loved. There were people who were poorer than us, yet in my town, we were considered to be not a wealthy family, but well-to-do, which means we weren't hungry. There were people who were.

I spent most of my time talking to God more than to people. He was my partner, my friend, my teacher, my King, my sovereign, and I was so crazily religious that nothing else mattered.

Oh, from time-to-time we had anti-Semitic outbursts. Twice a year, Christmas and Easter, we were afraid to go out because those nights we used to be beaten up by hoodlums. It didn't matter that much. In a way, I was almost used to that. I saw it as part of nature. It's cold in the winter, it's hot in the summer and at Easter and Christmas you are being beaten up by a few anti-Semitic hoodlums.

Now, it is still the child in me that asks the questions. It is still the child in me that I am trying to entertain or to reach with my stories, which are his stories.

What people were important to you? Who influenced you? Who inspired you?

Elie Wiesel: Well, naturally, my grandfather.

Elie Wiesel Interview Photo
Elie Wiesel Interview Photo

He was a Hasid, meaning a member of the Hasidic community, and I loved him, I adored him. So, thanks to him, I became a Hasid too. And my mother -- who actually continued his tradition -- she's the one who brought me to Hasidic Masters. And all the stories I tell now -- I've written so many books with Hasidic tales -- these are not mine, these are theirs, my mother's and my grandfather's. My father taught me how to reason, how to reach my mind. My soul belonged to my grandfather and my mother. They enriched me, of course. They influenced me profoundly, to this day. When I write, I have the feeling, literally, physically, that one of them is behind my back, looking over my shoulder and reading what I'm writing. I'm terribly afraid of their judgment. After the war -- I wrote about it in my autobiography so I want to come back to that subject -- I had a teacher in France who was totally crazy. He spoke 30 languages, literally 30 languages. One day he learned that I knew Hungarian, and he didn't. He felt so bad that he learned Hungarian in two weeks. In two weeks he knew more about Hungarian literature than I did. Then I had, in New York, a very great teacher, a very great Master. His name was Saul Lieberman, a Talmudic Scholar. I've studied Talmud all my life. I still do, even now, every day. For 17 years we were friends, as only a real teacher and a good student can be.

As a boy, what books most influenced you, were most important to you?

Elie Wiesel: Religious books, of course.

At home we didn't study the prophets that much. We studied the five books of Moses -- the Pentateuch -- and then, again, Talmud and Hasidic stories. They, of course, had a lasting influence on me. Secular literature? We had to go to school, so we went to school too, but the main impact I received was from my religious schools as a child.

After the war, I began reading, of course. I went to the Sorbonne. I began reading literature, Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann, the usual, Kafka. I remember the awakening that occurred in me when I read, for the first time, Franz Kafka. Literally, I remember it. I remember it was in the evening when I began reading. I spent the entire night reading and, in the morning, I heard the garbage collector around five o'clock. Usually, I was annoyed at the garbage collector. It's a very ugly noise that they make, ugly sounds. That morning I was happy. I wanted to run out and embrace them, all these garbage collectors, because they taught me that there was another world than the world of Kafka, which is absurd and desperate, and despairing.

I read a lot. I teach my students, not creative writing, but creative reading and it is still from my childhood. You take a text, you explore it, you enter it with all your heart and all your mind. And then you find clues that were left for you, really foredestined to be received by you from centuries ago. Generation after generation there were people who left clues, and you are there to collect them and, at one point, you understand something that you hadn't understood before. That is a reward, and as a teacher I do the same thing. When I realize there is a student there, in the corner, who understands, there is a flicker in the eye. That is the greatest reward that a teacher can receive.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

Elie Wiesel: I'm not sure I am, actually. I have written 40 books, it must mean I'm a writer. When you have to write "profession," I'm not going to write "writer." After all, "Profession?" "Writer?" A profession is to be a human being, maybe. That's a very noble profession. Or teacher, the noblest of all professions. I write. As a child, really, at age ten, eleven, or twelve, I was writing already. I wanted to become a writer, and I even wrote a book of commentaries on the Bible. It's so bad. I found it after the war. It's so horrible; I'm embarrassed even to admit that I had written it.

My ambition really was, even as a child, to be a writer, a commentator, and a teacher, but a teacher of Talmud. And here I am. I'm a writer, for want of a better word, and I'm a teacher. I don't teach the same things. I don't write about the same things -- although I do write commentaries on the Bible, and on the Prophets, and the Talmud, and Hasidic Masters. But still, I am a writer and a teacher.

What lessons can we draw for young people for all of this? How do you maintain faith in the face of the circumstances that you've endured in your lifetime? How do you keep hope and optimism alive? How do you keep going?

Elie Wiesel: Well, I could answer you by saying, "What is the alternative?" But it's not enough. In truth, I have learned something. The enemy wanted to be the one who speaks, and I felt, I still feel, we must see to it that the victim should be the one who speaks and is heard.

Therefore, all my adult life, since I began my life as an author, or as a teacher, I always try to listen to the victim. In other words, if I remain silent, I may help my own soul but, because I do not help other people, I poison my soul. Silence never helps the victim. It only helps the victimizer. Faith? I think of the killer and I lose all faith. But then I think of the victim and I am inundated with compassion.

Is it possible for you to say what advice you might offer to young people today who are starting out on whatever course they may follow?

Elie Wiesel: Sensitivity. Be sensitive in every way possible about everything in life. Be sensitive. Insensitivity brings indifference and nothing is worse than indifference. Indifference makes that person dead before the person dies. Indifference means there is a kind of apathy that sets in and you no longer appreciate beauty, friendship, goodness, or anything.

Elie Wiesel Interview Photo
So, therefore, do not be insensitive. Be sensitive, only sensitive. Of course it hurts. Sensitivity is painful. So what? Think of those that you have to be sensitive to. Their pain is greater than yours.

When you talk about victims and injustice, you are speaking about something that is universal. It is with us as much today as it was during the war years.

Elie Wiesel: Absolutely.

Sensitivity is inclusive, not exclusive. If you are sensitive, you are sensitive to everything. You cannot say I am only sensitive to this person but not to others. That is not only counterproductive, it's self-defeating. It's not only because of religion, or because of social problems, or of medical problems, that you must be sensitive. There is nothing more exciting for a person than to be a sensitive person. Because then you listen, and you go out and you hear the birds chirping and it's great. You see a person in the street, you do not know his face and you think, "Who knows what secret that person carries?" Which means you learn and you learn and you learn and you become enriched to a point that afterwards it overflows.

What personal characteristics are most important for young people to have in mind as they look toward their futures and their careers?

Elie Wiesel: What I say, of course, applies to all since I don't know the individual component of that group you are trying to refer to.

I would say, favor the question, always question. Do not accept answers as definitive. Answers change. Questions don't. Always question those who are certain of what they are saying. Always favor the person who is tolerant enough to understand that there are no absolute answers, but there are absolute questions.

If you were going to recommend books...

Elie Wiesel: Don't ask. I wouldn't recommend mine because it would be vanity. Were I to recommend others, those I'm not recommending would be angry.

I would certainly say to read the classics. I like to re-read the classics. The Bible, naturally, then the religious texts, the Hindu texts. The Upanishads and the Vedas are great, great books. Then go to the Greeks. And The Song of Gilgamesh, These are extraordinary books, even to this day. Read and read and read, but mainly read those who have survived the centuries.

Elie Wiesel Interview Photo

What would you say the American Dream means to you?"

Elie Wiesel: Equality in diversity. That no group should be superior in the American society than another. Second, generosity. The person who is fortunate --thanks to his or her talent or heritage, to have more than others -- that person should know that he or she owes something to others who are less fortunate. Third, that every minute can be the beginning or the end of an adventure.

As we approach the 21st Century, what do you see as the greatest challenges in front of us?

Elie Wiesel: Fanaticism. If there is one word that comprises all of these threats, it is fanaticism. For some strange reason, it is growing everywhere, in every religion: in Islam, in Christianity, in Judaism. Why now? Haven't we seen really fanaticism is dangerous as an idea, because it carries poison? Furthermore, in politics, imagine a fanatic with power. May I go one step further? Imagine a fanatic with nuclear power. Do you have any doubt that if Idi Amin, in Uganda 20 years ago, before he was thrown out, that would have used a weapon if he had one? Or a Khadafi now, in Libya? It is dangerous. A fanatic therefore, must be unmasked first, and then disarmed.

Is there anything that you have thought about doing that you haven't been able to do yet?

Elie Wiesel: I may seem silly or childish to you, but if could bring back one child, I would give up anything I have. Just one child. If I could now -- which is more possible -- to free one prisoner, I would give a lot. If I could give a feeling of solidarity to a person who is abandoned, I would still give a lot. So you see, I would like to do things that I cannot do. All I have is a few words, and I will give these words. That's what I am trying to do.

Elie Wiesel Interview Photo

What is your hope for this generation that follows us?

Elie Wiesel: I would not want my past to become their future.

You have seen and experienced many atrocities throughout your life's experiences. How can someone live a good life after experiencing tragedy and suffering?

Elie Wiesel: In spite of what I have seen in my life, observed of the Jews, I agree with Albert Camus, whose work I always love to read and teach. At the end of his novel, The Plague, which is a desperate and despairing novel, he says, more or less, "There is more to celebrate than to denigrate in man."

Thank you. Thank you so much.

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