Elie Wiesel and the One Indestructible Human Quality
In each issue of Pittsburgh Quarterly, I write obituaries of notable Pittsburghers, and over the past 10-plus years, the percentage of those whom I knew in life – some very well – has been growing.
Last week came the news of the death of Elie Wiesel, who steadfastly bore witness to the Holocaust for more than 60 years. His passing had a special significance for me. When I was 21 and a junior at Kenyon College, I had occasion to interview Wiesel. He had come to campus to speak in 1983, and as the editor of a publication I’d started there, I was to meet him at 9 a.m. on a cold winter morning.
After staying up all night reading his books “Night” and “The Town Beyond the Wall,” it was obvious that it would be a privilege to speak with Wiesel. And it was no surprise when, three years later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Of our morning meeting, I remember two things. Wiesel gave an impression of frail intensity. He was a slight man, and his voice was so quiet, that I worried that the tape recorder wouldn’t pick him up. The intensity—a blend of intellectual vigor and what might be called sadness—was most clear in his eyes. The entire conversation, my short questions and his answers, was subdued.
What I remember most was his answer to my question: “What do you think is indestructible about humanity?” I expected him to say hope or perhaps any number of other things. His answer was something I’ve never forgotten:
“Imagination. Not faith; faith can be destroyed. Hope can be abolished. Fear can be overcome. Imagination in the best sense of the word.”
From The Gambier Journal, March, 1983
Elie Wiesel: Keep Asking Questions
Born in Transylvania in 1925, Elie Wiesel was imprisoned in Auschwitz, the first of four concentration camps he was to survive. Author of numerous stories and critical essays, as well as over 20 novels, Wiesel is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University.
By Douglas Heuck
Q. How did the term “Holocaust” evolve into its present meaning? Do you think it’s being misused or, somehow, cheapened?
A. Originally, it was a religious term, which meant burnt offerings: offerings burnt by fire. Therefore, when I began using it to evoke not to describe that event, I felt it appropriate as a metaphor. Now it’s being used too much – too much because there are no words to describe that event. Furthermore, it’s being abused because it’s used now for other circumstances, for other tragedies, for anything absurd or cruel. I heard, for instance, on television a few months ago the commentators speaking about the “holocaust on a football field or basketball court.” Why? One school lost, and consequently, for them it was a “holocaust.” That is absurd; it’s cheapening.
Q. In your book “The Town Beyond the Wall,” you make it clear that we must keeping asking the questions “What happened?”, “How did it happen?”, and “Why did it happen?” What answers can we expect? Are the answers themselves important?
A. It is the questions which are important. In “The Town Beyond the Wall,” I think I say that man is defined by his questions, not by his answers. It is our ability to ask and our ability to go to the end of certain questions which make us what we are, human or not. Answers divide people; questions unite them. The questions which we ask fill us with some measure of humility when we are confronted by events that transcend us. Not to ask would make us into slaves. To ask gives us freedom. What are the questions? They’re always the same: Why? Why then? Why there? Why to that people? How could man fall so low? How could humanity become so insensitive to its own fate?
Q. How could a seemingly educated and cultured people, the Germans, let the Holocaust happen? Is education enough? Is it merely an appearance?
A. The question is asked whether the event was an aberration or the culmination of history. Was the history until then merely a preparation for what happened? Was it on the other hand, the anti-history, an event that came from outside history? Many components exist. One component is religious anti-Semitism; for many, many centuries people were religious, and yet, they hate the Jews. They hate the Jews as they hated witches or actors – meaning it was possible to love God and hate man.
The racist theory of dehumanization then set in. In that view, some humans are less human than others. Therefore, the human being was no longer human; the term “subhuman” was applied. The Jew became an animal, an object, or a number. How could educated people do that? Apparently, their education served as a shield, as armor. Why? Education there was an abstraction. The German philosophy, for some time, loved the abstraction. I believe education must be related to reality; it must be related to human beings. Nothing that is alien should even be considered as ethical. Our education must be ethically grounded and inspired.
In the nineteenth century, one spoke or art for art’s sake. Now, art for art’s sake is no longer valid. I think every artistic statement must be a moral statement. Every literary statement must have serious commitment to humanity or against humanity. Now we know what words and language can do; now we know what man can do. This commitment wasn’t found then, and that’s why we witness the decadence and disintegration of the literary fabric.
Q. Can you see a parallel developing between the German’s anti-human, methodical “science of death” then and the ever-increasing threat of nuclear destruction now?
A. Not yet, but there will be. In the past, of course, we have Hiroshima; I am firmly convinced that Auschwitz paved the way for Hiroshima. In the years, 1941-1944, it was proven that it’s possible to try to exterminate a people. Therefore, Hiroshima was possible. On the other hand, I’m also convinced that, unless we take some stand of position (and I mean forcefully), Hiroshima is not a name of the past; it is a name of the future. So with parallels to the past, I will apply them to Hiroshima; but I will not apply them to Auschwitz. Auschwitz is beyond parallel. With Hiroshima and the present nuclear arms, it’s a button, and we’d go up in flames. I’m afraid of that; I’m afraid it could happen. It wouldn’t be the same as Auschwitz though.
Q. Why would a nuclear war be less terrible than the events at Auschwitz? Would nuclear war be any less calculated?
A. It will be calculated, perhaps by a very small group of people. Don’t forget, Auschwitz was the result of a collective effort. It wasn’t simply one man, for instance, Hitler or Himmler pressing the button. It involved thousands upon thousand of people. The psychologists worked out exactly how to lure the victim. The architects, too. Can you imagine in Auschwitz they sent letters to firms on how to build the ovens? It was very clear that they needed the best ovens to consume the most bodies a day! Then they needed the chemist to find the gas. They needed secretaries to type these letters. It involved humanity, while now it would probably be one small group of military or political insane people who will press the button.
Q. The executioner and the victim have very different realizations to make about themselves and the Holocaust. What lesson can we learn by looking at both of them?
A. A frightening lesson – they live in the same world. They are members of the same society. In a strange way, they are both human beings. At what point does the killer cease to be human? I don’t know. When he killed the first child? When he gave the first order? Did the victim become dehumanized? At what point? I happen to think that the victim never became dehumanized. To the last minute, he or she remained human. It’s the mother protecting her child. It’s the father giving bread to his son. It’s the teacher speaking to his pupil. It’s the rabbi praying. Something. It always happened, and they were human to the very end. The killers dehumanized themselves by killing, and yet we’re all supposed to be children of one father. That is a terrifying lesson.
Otherwise, we have different lessons. The victim should learn never to transgress certain laws; he must not join the killer in his kingdom. If there is a consolation, although one can’t change the past, it is for the victims in that they were victims and not killers. What terrible consolation it is to pay such a price and still be consoled. Ethically, for students of political science there are minor lessons. One is: Don’t give evil another chance. The moment it shows its face – fight it. Don’t let it gather strength. Philosophically, what disturbs us is that this event, the most important event in history, could very well not have taken place. Had the French rearmed in 1934, had the French mobilized in 1936, had the French and English attacked in 1939, had they declared war on Germany, it would have been prevented. Had the allied leaders spoken up, it would have been prevented or, at least, the momentum of the Germans would have been slowed. We must speak up, not be quiet. Neutrality in times of stress helps the killer, never the victim.
Q. How is the essence of being Jewish different from that of 40 years ago?
A. To me, it hasn’t changed. It changed in its intensity, but I place myself within the context of Jewish history, which to me is human history. We are not superior to any other; we don’t have any special privileges. Forty years ago I was a child. I had very unique hopes and dreams. I thought I could bring the Messiah; anyone could. Now I know I can’t. All I want to do is to do small things, to achieve small miracles: one meeting, one student, one smile, one gesture, one word – that’s enough for me.
Q. When you entered the gates of Auschwitz, I believe you had the realization that your God was dead. If you have the faith now, how can you reconcile that?
A. Oh, I don’t really. It’s a paradox, but you know art means to live with paradoxes. Life is a paradox; only dead people have no paradoxes. It’s a paradox that we sit here while, a few hours flight away, there are people who are starving. We shouldn’t, and yet, and yet.
I had to voice my protest then. I would have betrayed God and my faith in God had I not spoken out against God. I try in my books to find other options and openings; where do I go from here? What I try to do is show that it is given to man to protest.
Q. How can we maintain this sense of responsibility and moral courage?
A. You are studying political science. It’s important to know all the systems that have been tried out in history. This is necessary in the establishing of a proper political system. If it stays at the level of study, then what’s the use? You must realize that, as a result of your knowledge, you must take action. Suppose there is some tragedy; you must get involved. If not for the sake of the victims, then for your sake. That is positive and creative. It transcends itself; it doesn’t stay with us.
The problem in Europe was the education. It was possible to teach ideas in the classroom which had no bearing on anything outside the class. These ideas had no bearing on family, friends, or enemies. The ideas weren’t attached to humanity. Eichmann, for instance, who gave orders for millions of people to be shipped to death, was a different person in his home. He could read books, he was nice with his children. The commander of the Auschwitz camp had his children almost within the compound. His children were just beyond the barbed wire fence, which was reserved for the SS, and he was a good father. Why? Because what he studied and what he taught was abstract.
We live on a very small planet, and there are millions of planets in this universe. Everything within this planet is interconnected. I believe in that with all my heart. Everything is connected, and the more I study and live, the more I realize how deep and indestructible the connections are.
Q. What do you think is indestructible about humanity?
A. Imagination. Not faith; faith can be destroyed. Hope can be abolished. Fear can be overcome. Imagination in the best sense of the word.
Unfortunately, even imagination failed us. We couldn’t imagine what would happen. If we had imagined, it couldn’t have happened.
Q. What were your initial feelings when you saw allied troops arriving?
A. Oh by that time I was almost unconscious because I hadn’t eaten in so many days. I remember only that the American soldiers were so broken up that they began throwing their rations to us. They had SPAM. Now if I had gotten SPAM the week before, I would have eaten it; I would have eaten anything. Now, though, I was no longer a prisoner. I didn’t know it, but something in me already knew I was free. When I took the SPAM and brought it near my lips, it is the religious Jew in me that woke up. Unknowingly, I fainted. I couldn’t eat it. Now medical people tell me it was simply a matter of stomach poisoning, which I did get. I passed out for 10 days. The religious Jew in me would say it’s not true: Suddenly I realized “As a Jew, I can’t eat pork.”
Q. You’ve been stressing the importance and necessity of having ethical responsibility in our lives. Does the technology of modern science worry you at all? Are we losing control of technology? Instead of being our tool, is it being looked on to shape morality?
A. It worries me, when I think of how the computers are becoming our masters instead of our slaves. Can you imagine how many advances have been made in computers and modern science during my lifetime? I still remember when I used a horse and wagon to go to see my grandfather. Now, when I come from Paris to New York, I take the Concord; it took me longer to get to my grandfather’s village than it did for me to fly from Paris to New York. What if the computers all decide to rebel someday? I don’t trust them. Machines frighten me. I think Time Magazine was correct in giving the “Man of the Year” to the computer. I think they did it to frighten us, to wake us up. Somebody said this, and I like it: The computers have all the answers. There’s one thing the computers don’t have, and that’s the questions. Only we have the questions.
We are so vain as human beings. We think that, even if the whole universe is destroyed, our little planet will not be destroyed. Why? Why not? Why not our little planet? I am really frightened because, for the first time, the instrument of total death has been put at the disposal of man. I am afraid that we will not be wise enough or humble enough to resist that seduction. I’m afraid we will, like a child with fire, try it out. Some man, some crazy man, from a small country, who will have enough money to buy himself a nuclear bomb won’t resist that attraction that death holds over us; I am afraid of that. We must keeping warning people.
I have an unorthodox view. I do not believe in unilateral disarmament. I don’t think the West should just disarm and simply let the Russians decide our fate, because they would. They wouldn’t hesitate. I hope that in Russia the young people will start to do what we are doing here: organizing against nuclear arms. Then bilateral disarmament will be possible.