Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel discusses the importance of remembering and bearing witness.
NARRATOR: Welcome to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Your host is Jerry Fowler, Director of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience.
JERRY FOWLER: Our guest today is Elie Wiesel, a Survivor of the Holocaust. He has written dozens of books, including the memoir, Night. He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States Congressional Gold Medal, and in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. He joins us from his office in New York. Professor Wiesel, welcome to the program.
ELIE WIESEL: Well, thank you.
JERRY FOWLER: I wanted to focus a little bit on the relationship between memory and witness, which I think in some ways, is the essence of your work. I had a very interesting question—to me it is interesting—you grew up speaking Yiddish, and now I imagine you spend a lot of your life speaking English or French—
ELIE WIESEL: I write in French, but I speak English.
JERRY FOWLER: Okay, you speak English; you write in French, what language do you remember in?
ELIE WIESEL: It depends on the period. If I think of those years, of course I come back to Yiddish very often. My dreams too; I dream almost geographically. If I dream of my childhood, then I dream in Yiddish. If it is after the war, in France, it is in French. In English, I dream about America. It is very strange. I spoke to psychiatrists and psychologists and they cannot explain it, but my languages are very obedient and separate.
JERRY FOWLER: What does it mean to remember in one language, and especially remembering the years before the Holocaust in Yiddish, but bear witness to it in another?
ELIE WIESEL: It is almost automatic. If I am in the United States—and I of course have devoted my public life in English as a teacher, or as a member in Washington in our effort to build a Museum and to maintain it—it is always in English, and there is no effort.
JERRY FOWLER: It just comes naturally?
ELIE WIESEL: It comes naturally, yes.
JERRY FOWLER: You mention the Museum, and of course you were the founding chair of the Holocaust Memorial Council and it was really your inspiration that led to the creation of a national memorial on the Mall. You formulated a phrase that is on many of our materials; it is at the very end of our permanent exhibition. It says, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” What did you mean by that?
ELIE WIESEL: I remember it was when we began, somebody asked me—I should say it in one sentence, “What do we want to do?” and, therefore, I came up with this mantra “for the dead and—and I insisted on the “and the living.” They should not simply devote ourselves to the dead; there is not much we can do for the dead except remember them and the living need us now. The living need our memory, the living need our commitment, the living need our compassion and our guidance. So that was there for the idea that I had in giving these words, and the living; we must remember for the living as well.
JERRY FOWLER: What about this connection though between remembering the past and bearing witness? What does it mean to bear witness to a memory?
ELIE WIESEL: Bear witness to memory is with memory, not to memory. Memory helps us in our witness and the main effort to bear witness is to tell the truth. There is a tendency in so many people to reduce the truth to comfort; it is more comfortable, more convenient to remember certain things, but not others, and those that want to commit their lives to truth, that means we remember everything.
JERRY FOWLER: What is the power of truth? There is a natural human urge just to remember convenient things. Why do we need to remember the truth?
ELIE WIESEL: We need to because of the sake of truth. If we are not bearers of truth, then what are we? Then we are almost the enemies of truth, by distorting it, by making it into a source of pleasure when we deal with tragic truth. I feel that we are here to say, “This is what happened.” It is almost a biblical reference as when he spoke in his words about warning people against cruelty and against complacency, he said, “I am the man who saw,” and we can say, “We are those who were there. I was there.” And when I say that, I have the authority and therefore the duty to tell the truth.
JERRY FOWLER: When the Museum was dedicated in April of 1993, you delivered the keynote address, and it is a text that I have gone back and read many, many times; it is incredibly moving. You talk about the story of a young woman in the Carpathian Mountains who read about the Warsaw ghetto and asked, “Why are our Jewish brothers fighting? Why don’t they wait quietly?” not knowing that she and her family would within a year be on their way to Auschwitz. Of course that was the story of your own family, but then in the middle of your address, you stopped and you turned to President Clinton who was there and you talked to him about Bosnia; about what was happening at that very moment in Bosnia where people were targeted because of their ethnic identity. Why was it important for you to juxtapose those two things?
ELIE WIESEL: No, it was not planned. I had prepared the address; I worked on it all night. I remember it was raining and when I came to the lectern, I opened my folder; it was soaked, and if I was ever close to a heart attack, that was it. Therefore, I decided I had to do something. If I try to remember what I said, then I would be in trouble, so I did not, I just improvised a new one. Even in the written version, I came back to that saying that I do not believe in analogies, I do not compare tragedies, but I believe ours can serve as a reference point. It was because of what happened there that we must now try to help all the victims of all the other tragedies, and I wrote about it, but it came out because I felt, “This is an opportunity.” I had some thirty heads of state there, and it was important that one was with me on stage, and therefore, I turned and I said, “Look, I just came back from Sarajevo.” I said, “What I have seen there robbed me of my sleep,” and that was the first time I met Clinton, and he waited for me afterwards in an adjacent room, and he said, “What should I do?” And he promised me to do something, and then he kept his promise. That is how we became close actually. I saw him very often, and he sent me to the region—to Albania, to Macedonia, to the camps. Sometimes words do carry weight.
JERRY FOWLER: One of the points you make which is very important is the importance of not analogizing the Holocaust to other events, comparing one to the other, but it is possible to honor memory by speaking out without making comparisons.
ELIE WIESEL: Absolutely, by simply saying, “It is because of that tragedy that we must defend victims of other injustices, of other tragedies, of other catastrophes.” It is because, but I cannot say that the other tragedies are like—why say that? We do not have to say that. Each tragedy and each victim have the right to be taken for what they are, and therefore, they command us to be involved.
JERRY FOWLER: One of the phrases—when you first recommended creation of a national memorial, there was a report to President Carter at the time, this was the late 70s, recommending the creation of the Committee on Conscience and saying that, “a memorial unresponsive to the future would violate the memory of the past.” There is an obligation in honoring the memory.
ELIE WIESEL: Oh yes. I had high hopes for it, but in the beginning we had problems; we had problems with the Senate actually because they were afraid that we would be involved in politics and foreign policy, and foreign policy was the White House, and after all, it is not our prerogative. But all the Senators and the House, they were all close to us. We could always count on their sympathy, but only for this, we had some difficulties. Then it stopped; now I think the relations are very good.
JERRY FOWLER: Yes, and in fact, in 2004, we had two Senators speak at the Museum, in the Hall of Witness about the ongoing crisis in Darfur. So in a sense, there is a recognition that it is appropriate for a Holocaust Memorial to do that.
ELIE WIESEL: It is.
JERRY FOWLER: Let’s turn to Darfur. You have spoken out on Darfur, but you were involved with Sudan before that. How did you get involved with the issue of Sudan and the suffering there?
ELIE WIESEL: I gave the millennium lecture in the White House with Clinton, and the title was “Perils of Indifference,” and after my lecture, there were a few questions from the people there, and one of them got up and she said, “I am from Rwanda.” At this point, I turned to the President and said, “Mr. President, please answer this question. It is a very important one after all. You know, and I know, that we could have saved between 600,000-800,000 men, women, and children in Rwanda, why did we not?” So, he admitted, he said, “It is true, Elie, it is true. We could have and we did not, therefore, I went to Rwanda to apologize in my name and in the name of our nation, but I promise you it will never happen again.” The next day I got telephone calls from people in Washington and they came to see me with the Bishop from Rwanda saying, “You are now the custodian of a presidential pledge,” and that is how I became involved, and I remain deeply involved in it.
JERRY FOWLER: Today, of course, the crisis is in Darfur, in the western region of Sudan. Do you feel that we as humanity are responding differently, better, more urgently than we have in the past?
ELIE WIESEL: Not enough. In the past, of course, there was not enough. I created a foundation; our foundation has a special project called “Nobel Initiatives.” That means that I believe that we Nobel Laureates, who have received so much, must give back. Now we are organizing a delegation of Nobel Laureates to Darfur.
JERRY FOWLER: To go to Darfur?
ELIE WIESEL: To Darfur and bear witness.
JERRY FOWLER: When will you do that?
ELIE WIESEL: Within a few weeks.
JERRY FOWLER: That is excellent. When you come back, come to the Museum and describe your experience.
ELIE WIESEL: I will let you know. You and I have been involved in this for some time.
JERRY FOWLER: Exactly. Let me shift gears just a little bit, but it is very related. In the first volume of your autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea, you describe antisemitism as a fact of life as you were growing up before the Holocaust in the area you grew up in, and it was a fact of life in Europe. We seem to be seeing a resurgence of antisemitism in Europe. What is the structure of this antisemitism? Is it new? Is it old?
ELIE WIESEL: It is not new because the roots are old. This is what troubles me, that I thought in 1945 antisemitism died in Auschwitz, but I was wrong. Its victims perished, antisemitism did not. Why? We could spend days and days trying to analyze if antisemitism of today is like the antisemitism of fifty years ago or two hundred years ago. The antisemite hates the Jews before he or she was born, and therefore, you wonder what kind of mind is the mind of the antisemite who does not live in reality, who hates because he feels the need to hate, and for them it is so easy to hate a Jew because we have been the other, the stranger in so many places, and they simply could not understand why we were still around. Hate became their answer. I organize all over the world conferences called “Anatomy of Hate,” because of that. I try to understand that hater in order to eradicate his or her hate.
JERRY FOWLER: Do you get the sense that—antisemitism has very deep roots obviously—but do you get the sense that today there is more of a response to it, that there are more people that are willing to take it as a responsibility to oppose antisemitism?
ELIE WIESEL: Yes, because now we know that where antisemitism ended—not ended, but where it led to, to Auschwitz—there is one thing that is very clear, that Auschwitz would not have happened without antisemitism. It was not the only reason, but surely without it there would be no Auschwitz, and therefore, people want to denounce it and to disarm it, and to eradicate it.
JERRY FOWLER: But I guess it is an ongoing challenge?
ELIE WIESEL: We need intervention; we needed the intervention of intellectuals, of moralists, of decent people, simply to say, “This isn't an option; this should never be an option.” In a civilized society, where honor means something, antisemitism is dishonor.
JERRY FOWLER: One kind of historical prop that antisemites have used for over a century now is a fake document called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and actually the Museum is developing a special exhibition on this. This was a fake document that was created by the Tsarist’s Secret Police in the early 20th century, but it is still around. Why do you think it has lasted as long as it has?
ELIE WIESEL: Some lies have a long life because there are some people who believe in it and who like to believe in it. What bothers me is that now, in some if not many Arab countries, it is a kind of legal document. Saudi Arabia used to get a present from the official government giving “Protocols.” In Syria and in Egypt, they have it. It is a shame, their shame that it happens there. That is what bothers me because after all we want to believe that Islam is one of the greatest religions, and it should not be an agent of hatred.
JERRY FOWLER: Why do you think they are so influential in the Arab world?
ELIE WIESEL: Because it is Israel; they hate Israel. The best way for them to hate Israel is to say, how the Protocols say it, that Jews control the world. You have no idea how many people just believe it, that really we control the world, that we Jews control Washington, the Pentagon, and the White House, the government, and the world. I wish it were true, then we could do something about it, it could help.
JERRY FOWLER: Stepping back for a second and surveying your remarkable life, you wrote an autobiography in two volumes. The first volume, All Rivers Run to the Sea, the second volume, And the Sea is Never Full, and that was a quote of course from Ecclesiastes, which is also the epigraph to the whole book. The image that King Solomon has in Ecclesiastes is one of futility, vanity of vanities, all is vanity, and that is represented by the rivers running to the sea and they are not full. Sometimes when we deal with these issues of antisemitism, of genocide, there is a temptation to feel futility—what is the use of speaking out? It still happens. How do you resolve that?
ELIE WIESEL: I think the past of Ecclesiastes is long; it is long. It is pessimistic, and by definition does not go that far, I think. Even if we cannot, we must. If there is no hope, we must invent it and we can invent it. If we with our work help only one human being, then we should do it, and we can usually help more. The main thing is we help ourselves by speaking up; we have an image of ourselves, a sense of responsibility that must be demonstrated by intervening, by shouting, by protesting.
JERRY FOWLER: That sense of responsibility, I think that brings us back to remembering the Holocaust. One of the comments you made when the Museum was dedicated is that the Holocaust Memorial, the Museum, does not necessarily answer difficult questions, but it is a response and a responsibility.
ELIE WIESEL: I said that there is response in responsibility. The only response that I would accept to the tragedy is a moral response. All other responses—theological, psychological—they have problems, but this one has no problems. Simply to say, that because of that, we must humanize history, humanize destiny, humanize humanity, and we do so through responsibility; we are responsible for it, and to it.
JERRY FOWLER: Professor Wiesel, thank you so much for joining us today
ELIE WIESEL: As always, it is a pleasure talking with you. All the best to you.
JERRY FOWLER: Take care.
ELIE WIESEL: And good work. Bye bye.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, a podcasting service of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about the Museum’s Committee on Conscience, visit our website at www.committeeonconscience.org.